Editor’s update: The office of West Virginia’s Secretary of State has posted the WV Lottery Sports Wagering Rule for public comment. West Virginia is back on track to unveil its sports betting industry by the early NFL Season.
Just a few short weeks ago, there was little doubt that West Virginia would be offering sports betting by the time its Division I college football teams, Marshall and West Virginia University, took the field.
Now, doubts loom, as the state government appears to be playing the role of obstructionist, actively seeking to delay the next step in the process so that additional language centered around so-called “integrity fees” can be inserted. Should this delay linger for more than a couple of days, then it’s plausible residents of the Mountain State will be waiting quite some time before placing sports wagers.
NFL Season? Try the tail end of March Madness for sports betting in West Virginia if the process doesn’t push forward, and soon.
The threat is real
After more than a month of turmoil, all appeared to be back on track for West Virginia sports betting. In late June, the West Virginia Lottery gave the go-ahead on emergency regulations for the industry, included among them provisions that would allow the state’s land-based casinos to apply for interim licenses and set up temporary sportsbooks. Presumably, these were included so that the turnaround time from approval to launch would be shortened.
In the lead-up to the emergency regs being approved, there was fear that the entire process would be bogged down. In May, Gov. Jim Justice brokered a closed-door meeting with lawmakers, casino interests, and professional sports league lobbyists, centered around whether West Virginia’s sports betting operators should fork over a percentage of their handle to the leagues in exchange for official league data. Supposedly, Bray Cary, a member of Justice’s senior staff as a citizen volunteer and special assistant, also played a prominent role in the proceedings.
Despite a grandiose and premature claim that a deal with the leagues came to pass, the emergency regulations were approved with zero mention of integrity fees. Case closed, right?
Apparently not. The recent troubles were foreshadowed when it took 18 days for the emergency regs to be filed, held up by a governor’s office that still had an eye on working out something with the leagues. The filing finally came on July 9, with a provision that the regulations must be posted for public comment within 30 days or they will expire. That deadline will hit on Wednesday, and if not met, there is a real possibility that the emergency regulations will expire.
According to the Charleston Mail Gazette, casino reps “believe that Cary, presumably at the behest of Justice, is trying to go back and insert language into the rules to require the state’s casinos to contract with the professional sports leagues to buy ‘official league data’ for their games.” The WV Lottery was supposedly ready to post the regs for comment a couple of weeks ago, but obstructionism prevailed.
A conflict of Justice
Presumably, the reason why Justice’s office is lobbying so fervently for integrity fees is because the governor himself has long-standing and deep ties to professional sports leagues. Justice is the owner of The Greenbrier, a luxury resort that since 2010 has inhabited a casino (The Casino Club at the Greenbrier). Also since 2010, the facility has been a stop on the PGA Tour, with the most recent iteration of the Greenbrier Classic running from July 2 – 8. The tournament will not be a stop on the 2019 Tour, but is slated to return in 2020.
In addition, The Greenbrier has acted as a practice facility for both NBA and NFL. Putting two and two together, it’s not difficult to see why Justice would be lobbying for a fee that no one else really wants. The three states that have gone live with sports betting (New Jersey, Delaware, and Mississippi) do not have any arrangement with the leagues, nor do Pennsylvania or Rhode Island, both of which have sports betting laws on the books.
Recently, MGM forged a gaming partnership with the NBA, where the casino behemoth will pay $25 million over three years to the NBA in exchange for an official data feed. Even though it appears NBA Commish Adam Silver hasn’t completely given up on siphoning handle from the books directly, the alliance of the NBA and MGM does signal that pro leagues are willing to take alternative routes in securing their piece of the pie.
What happens next?
We wait. If the emergency regs are posted for public comment by Wednesday, then there’s still a strong chance West Virginia goes live with sports betting at its five land-based casinos (followed shortly thereafter by online/mobile) by September 1.
If not, then a sort of doomsday scenario could unfold, where according to the Charleston Mail Gazette, “sports betting would be subject to the regular legislative rule-making review process, meaning that the state’s five casinos — including the one Justice owns — would have to put their sportsbooks on hold until the Legislature passes the rules bill bundle. That usually takes place during the last week of the regular session — in March.”
In that (unlikely) case, so much for that bet on the Marshall v. Miami Ohio game, slated for September 1, and sour grapes for Will Hill, which just penned an agreement to provide its mobile and retail services in West Virginia.