Several prominent Maryland legislators and iGaming experts convened at Morgan State University’s Center for Data Analytics and Sports Gaming Research last week for a panel discussion about the future of gambling in Maryland. The overwhelming consensus: Legal online casinos are coming.
While the rehashing of previous sports betting legislation dominated a chunk of the panel discussion — retail sportsbooks launched in the state in December of 2021, while mobile sportsbooks went live in November of 2022 — the final 30 minutes of the conversation looked forward. Delegate Edith Patterson and former Del. Darryl Barnes both attended, and they believe there will be an online casino legalization push in Maryland in the near future. That belief is shared by Becca Giden, the director of policy for Eilers & Krejcik Gaming.
Sen. Ron Watson introduced an online casino bill during the 2023 legislative session, and while it didn’t move forward, he’s expecting to reintroduce similar legislation in 2024. The Maryland Lottery is also having The Innovation Group conduct an iGaming feasibility study, which will be completed by November and shared with the General Assembly. Expanded gambling in Maryland would require a referendum in 2024.
Barnes says that if Maryland legislators have learned anything from sports betting, it’s that the legislature should take its time setting up an iGaming system that works for the state.
“We’re not rushing,” Barnes said.
Problem gambling considerations
Problem gambling is among several important considerations for legislators looking to move forward with casino app legislation. Some are hesitant to legalize online casino gambling so soon after mobile sports betting, citing a possible rise in problem gambling as a concern.
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West Virginia legislator Shawn Fluharty, who helped his state legalize sports betting and iCasino, understands that line of reasoning. He also believes that creating a legal, regulated iGaming market yields better data about problem gambling that can then be used for research and decision-making.
“You need the data to do the research, but you need the legislation first before you get to anything,” Fluharty said. “You’re not getting the data in an unregulated market.”
Some attendees at the Morgan State presentation expressed doubt that operators could push customers toward responsible gambling habits. But John Pappas, senior vice president of government affairs at GeoComply, stressed that it benefits regulators, operators, and consumers when responsible gambling best practices are followed.
“You want to have as many customers gambling within their means as possible,” Pappas said. “No operator benefits from a problem gambler. That person is on your site for a very short time because either they’ve run out of money or they’ve come to a conclusion that they shouldn’t be gambling anymore.”
Revenue, consumer protections
While a potential problem gambling rise is seen as a reason to avoid expansion, increasing state revenue generation and consumer protections are viewed as major positives by supporters of iGaming legalization. From a revenue perspective, online casino gaming has proven significantly more lucrative than mobile sports betting for states with both.
“It takes nearly three months of sports betting in West Virginia to raise enough revenue that we can do in one month with iGaming,” Fluharty said.
Fluharty said that if Maryland legalizes online casino gaming, there will be a flood of tax revenue. Figuring out what to do with that revenue will be critical, the legislator advised.
Additionally, Fluharty and Pappas believe a regulated market can benefit Maryland consumers by offering currently unavailable protections.
“I encourage you to go home, type, ‘Can I play online poker in Maryland?’ and tell me what you see,” Pappas said. “You’re going to be directed to multiple affiliate sites that say, ‘Come to this site and play. It’s totally legal. It’s totally legitimate.’ It’s not legal. It’s not legitimate.”
Pappas’ suggestion illustrates some legitimate consumer protection concerns. A Google search of “Can I play online poker in Maryland” includes some legitimate sites saying online poker is currently illegal in the state, but other results on the first page of Google search results send users to unregulated online poker sites.
A regulated market could shift that dynamic, with customers being directed to legal online poker sites.
Maryland’s sports betting legislation was written with the intention of giving minority- and female-owned businesses a seat at the table. Similar language is expected to be featured in any future iCasino legislation.
“A large part of the priorities will be what we already did in sports betting, looking at diversity, equity, and inclusion and how we get more minorities to participate in this industry,” Barnes said.
There were challenges in implementing that language on the sports betting side, as there’s only so much the state can legally do to create diversity within an industry. Still, Maryland legislators hope to be creative in promoting a diverse ownership group among online casino businesses should the state move forward with iCasino legalization.
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