A Look Back At The Long And Winding Road To Maryland Online Sports Betting

Written By

Updated on

Aerial view of light trails on a winding road through the forest at night

For more than two years, residents in Maryland have longed for online sports betting.

Now it’s a reality as Maryland sports betting apps finally started launching last week. Seven are now live, but the journey was anything but easy, or expedient — as noted by Gov. Larry Hogan during a press conference.

“This process took longer than it should have, but we are excited that this launch is in time for fans to place their bets on all the Thanksgiving Day NFL action, college football rivalry weekend, this week’s slate of NBA games, the 2022 World Cup, and this Sunday’s Ravens and Commanders games,” Hogan said.

Once upon a time in Maryland

Maryland voters approved sports betting in November 2020. Lawmakers set up the framework in spring 2021 with Hogan signing the legislation in May 2021.

The legislation set up 17 retail sports betting licenses specific entities in Maryland. In addition, it created 60 mobile and 30 retail licenses for competitive bids.

The legislators also set up a special committee, the Sports Wagering Applications Review Commission, to set up the regulations and applications for the competitive licenses. Legislation also requires the SWARC to ensure women and minority inclusion in the sports betting industry.

While the lawmakers meant well with the SWARC’s creation, it became a roadblock at times.

The early signs of struggle for Maryland sports betting

While some states in the past few years, like Arizona and Kansas, have gone from governor’s signature in the spring to accepting wagers by the start of the NFL season, the world knew by mid-August 2021 that Maryland would miss the boat. With regulations through its public comment period by late-September, Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency Director John Martin told the SWARC at its second meeting a “late fall” launch was possible.

By mid-October, the SWARC had postponed its third meeting and an industry source told LSR they did not expect a MD launch until the 2022 NFL season. The SWARC largely met just once a month as it slogged through the process.

“I don’t dare think we try to push any faster, we’re not dragging our feet by any stretch.”

SWARC Chair Thomas Brandt, Jr. in October 2021

Governor Hogan gets mad

Hogan eventually blamed SWARC, and legislators, for a delay in getting even retail sports betting off the ground. Rather than push through the allocated licenses, he felt they wanted all operators to launch at the same time.

It appears as if the legislature and the staff of the legislature and even the attorney for the legislature are pressuring that commission to delay things as long as possible, until they can do all of the other, brand-new licenses where companies haven’t even yet been formed, haven’t really applied, [and] haven’t been vetted. If in fact they don’t act immediately and approve [the five casinos] … it’s going to be at least a year or more before anyone gets the ability to do gambling in Maryland. And potentially it could kill the entire deal.”

Governor Larry Hogan at a press conference in November 2021.

Martin told LSR shortly after that he expected sports betting to get off the ground after Jan. 1, 2022.

Retail sports betting launches at last

The SWARC awarded the first retail licenses in November 2021. It was the same month when Martin told LSR online sportsbooks were likely at least a year away; a statement that came true.

Five retail sportsbooks opened throughout the month of December 2021. Another four launched in the year following.

Disparity study, what study?

One of the key roadblocks in the SWARC’s job was an additional study that was deemed necessary at some point throughout the process. The study was meant to determine if the commission could and should use additional efforts to bring women and minority involvement into the industry with the competitive licenses.

While the SWARC knew they needed the extra study at its first meeting, it did not begin until March 2022. The study finished in August. Between those dates, the SWARC did little visible work during its monthly meetings.

After receiving the results, the SWARC determined it could not use race- or gender-conscious criteria to award licenses. Instead, it opted to use a requirement that at least 5% of an applicant’s ownership must have a net worth of less than $1.847 million.

Hogan gets mad, again

After his earlier apparent success in getting retail sports betting going in late 2021, Hogan sent a letter to the SWARC in June 2022.

“Instead of decisive action to implement the voters’ decision, you have allowed the process to stagnate and become mired in overly bureaucratic procedures that have needlessly delayed the state’s ability to maximize the revenue potential of this emerging industry,” Hogan said in the letter. “Sports fans in Maryland simply want to be able to place bets on their mobile devices – that’s what they voted for, and they are angry and discouraged over SWARC’s inability to make it happen.”

The committee all but ignored his request at its next meeting. It was not until August when the SWARC heard a timeline for a Super Bowl launch and eventually sped up its process following the disparity study‘s conclusion.

Reinventing a wheel for Maryland sports betting

Following a year of meetings to determine how to launch mobile sports betting, regulators determined in September to award licenses on a rolling basis. That set up Wednesday’s launch of seven operators tied to the 17 entities named in MD legislation.

All along, as the SWARC worked through its duties — at times in roundabout ways — Martin and the MLGCA staff worked to get sports betting launched as quickly as possible.

“They have all the information that they need to make an informed decision. If it doesn’t happen, then we’re waiting at least another week or two. Then it’s asking if we are going to make the playoffs or the Super Bowl? I’d love to help, I just don’t know how we can because so many things are in their court.”

MLGCA Director John Martin said in November 2021, a comment that would hold true through much of the MD sports betting process.

In any case, online sports betting is live in Maryland. And it does not look all that different from other states with mobile sports betting.