Opinion: Five Sports Betting Stories To Watch In 2021

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Mercifully, 2020 is done. While there have been some notable ups in the gaming industry, perhaps most notably the continued growth across the industry, most of us would likely care to forget this past year.

It is with great optimism that we head into 2021. A covid vaccine on the horizon should be a positive for returning to normal, or at least a new normal. With any luck by the second half of the year, the hospitality industry can kick its recovery into hyperdrive.

While there are likely dozens of items to watch in the coming year, I have identified five things in sports betting that I am going to be watching:

The First Circuit, Joe Biden, and the Wire Act

Back in June, the First Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in an appeal from the New Hampshire District Court regarding the scope of the Wire Act. The case had a few components, but the key issue many took notice of was whether a 2018 Justice Department opinion that the 1961 statute applied to activities beyond sports gambling was in fact a correct interpretation.

The 2018 opinion replaced guidance from the same agency (the Office of Legal Counsel) that reached a conclusion that the statute was only applicable to sports betting.

In the period between the oral arguments and now, one of the judges who heard the case passed away. This might push back the timeframe of when to expect a decision. The other factor that is worthy of watching is how will the Joe Biden administration view this case – will we actually see an opinion or will the Biden Justice Department abandon the case before a decision is released?

The incoming presidential administration might be keen to return to the previous guidance; after all, the 2011 opinion that found the Wire Act to only apply to sports betting was written while Biden was Vice President. Biden has also previously said that he would restore the 2011 opinion, though we do not know where this issue stands on his list of immediate priorities.

College sports and gambling deals

While 2020 was not the first year for deals between NCAA schools and gambling entities, the deal between PointsBet and the University of Colorado caught a lot of attention. The Australian company and the university reached a five-year deal back in September, becoming the first NCAA school outside of Nevada to reach a partnership with a gambling operator.

The deal is unlikely to be the last. As colleges look for new ways to add money to their strapped budgets, gambling operators could make for attractive partnerships.

Contrary to some of the rhetoric out there, it is important for the integrity of college sports for bookmakers and athletic departments to work together and promote an environment where integrity-related information is commonplace. 2021 is likely to see a number of additional colleges become partners with operators.

Expansion and regulatory changes

The third item on my 2021 list is likely a wish list item for many across the continent. That’s right: continent.

Ontario (as well as all of Canada) appears as though it will be the first big jurisdiction to add single-game sports betting in the new year. But, Canadian sports betting is not the only jurisdiction that might see expansion, especially as states begin to assess the full extent of budget deficits.

While many of the states where expansion did not face substantial obstacles have already launched sports betting, even jurisdictions that are messier appear to be doing some real soul searching.

The other related area that is likely to see some attention is jurisdictions taking a look at some of their more controversial regulations. There are two that immediately come to mind that might be revisited in a few jurisdictions.

The first is eliminating bans on wagering on in-state college teams.  A bill was put forward in October in New Jersey that would do just that in the Garden State.

Elsewhere it is worth watching if states like Illinois will revise regulations to allow for remote registration even without a pandemic. Even Nevada, which has long required in-person registration, was considering a change to regulations that would allow remote registration for sports betting accounts.

Problem gambling, still a problem

Another area to watch, and hopefully improve on, in 2021 is problem gambling. There is emerging research that the pandemic might be introducing new challenges for those trying to overcome addiction.

It is also likely that as sports betting and iGaming continue to expand across the country, there will need to be increased resources devoted to already underfunded gambling awareness and treatment programs. The UK has recently been grappling with findings that upwards of 2.7% of adults might be problem gamblers.

It is unlikely that the U.S. is immune and as gambling becomes more accepted across the country, the time has never been better to begin devoting more resources towards awareness and treatment programs.

SPACs, IPOs, and mergers to come

DraftKings becoming a publicly-traded company via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), or a blank check company, was one the biggest industry news items of the year. The SPAC craze is poised to continue, broadly, but specifically within the gambling industry as well.

Genius Sports is scheduled to come public via a SPAC deal in the first quarter of 2021 and rumors swirling around other privately held companies as well.

As the industry continues to mature, it is likely that not only will more of the privately held companies seek to go public via either a SPAC, or the more traditional IPO, but it is also likely that some companies will be looking to expand their market footprint via mergers and acquisitions.