Voters in three states explicitly legalized sports betting on the November 2020 ballot, and Maryland is the only one of them yet to have live sports betting.
Thursday morning, however, the state’s Sports Wagering Application Review Commission finally approved five retail sports betting applications. The five, all casinos, were among 17 entities that the new law mandates will get sports betting licenses.
Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency Director John Martin said he’s aiming for “30-45 days” until rollout. After the approval Thursday, the applications go back to the Lottery and Gaming Commission, which will do a final check before issuing licenses to Hollywood Casino, Horseshoe Casino, Live! Casino, MGM National Harbor, and Ocean Downs Casino. Mobile wagering, according to lottery officials, is still far down the road.
“We’re excited to move forward and we’re coordinating closely with the casinos to make sure they finish everything as quickly as they can,” Martin said via press release Thursday. “Work has been ongoing, and we’re close. Our target is to launch within 30-45 days, which means Marylanders will be able to bet on the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl.”
While people in South Dakota and Louisiana have been able to place bets this football season, Marylanders have remained on the sideline, in large part because lawmakers created the most inclusive and complicated minority- and women-owned business guidelines for legal sports betting in the U.S. The SWARC is tasked with making sure those guidelines are met, and there is a growing rift not just between lottery officials and the SWARC, but on the wagering commission itself.
Lottery, SWARC not playing nicely together
Martin early this week joined sports betting regulators from Arizona and Louisiana on a webinar discussion about the road to launch. Martin wasted no time in pointing a very public finger at the SWARC for delays. The lottery approved the five venues in early fall and expected the SWARC to approve the applications at an October meeting. That was canceled with no explanation, however, and the commission also failed to approve the applications Nov. 3.
We have “yet to work well together,” Martin told his peers during the webinar. “When you realize we may have another 12-24 months of this, we absolutely have to find a way to work with the SWARC to make this happen.
“We’re sitting here hopeful that the SWARC will move very quickly so we can get on to the ultimate completion of the task and get sports wagering up and running.”
The SWARC got another nudge in a recent letter from three of the casinos urging “speedy consideration” of their applications.
“In other words, while [we] acknowledge SWARC’s statutory authority… to conduct a second disparity study and to undertake any attendant evaluation for purposes of awarding Class B licenses, SWARC’s exercise of that statutory authority is not a valid basis to delay the prompt award of licenses to Class A applicants,” the casinos wrote.
And Gov. Larry Hogan has been vocal in his frustration about the slow rollout.
Our administration recently approved the first three locations for sports wagering in Maryland.
— Governor Larry Hogan (@GovLarryHogan) October 8, 2021
The SWARC did take action Thursday, approving those first five applications, but only after much discussion about whether to delay voting until at least one of the minority- or women-owned businesses was included in that first batch of approvals, followed by discussion concerning how to better give those groups a leg up in general.
PointsBet gets first approval
Following the SWARC meeting, the Lottery and Gaming Control Commission voted Thursday afternoon to approve PointsBet for a license. The Australian-based company is partnered with Riverboat on the Potomac, a minority-owned OTB and keno center in Colonial Beach, Md. With that approval now being forwarded to it, the SWARC will have its first minority-owned application to consider.
It’s unclear how sports betting operators will be launched in Maryland. Some states do a mass launch on a set day while others give go-live approval as applications are complete. PointsBet earlier this year requested a mass launch, presumably so it doesn’t fall behind in a market filled with the biggest sports betting operators in the U.S. PointsBet is partnered with one of the 17 named entities, and being first to market — or at least in the first group — can make a difference for operators in terms of capturing market share.
The commission also voted to allow staff to issue licenses once all requirements have been met, in order to avoid meeting every time an application is ready to be issued. Both the SWARC and the lottery commission have regular monthly meetings, but they could add in additional meetings as applications move through the approval process.