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Pritzker closes book on mobile sports betting registration

Workers are pictured in March 2020 at the sportsbook at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. Bettors have been able to register to gamble on sports from their mobile devices for most of the pandemic, but that ends this weekend.
Workers are pictured in March 2020 at the sportsbook at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. Bettors have been able to register to gamble on sports from their mobile devices for most of the pandemic, but that ends this weekend. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

An executive order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker allowed Illinoisans to register to gamble on sports from their phones for most of the pandemic, but that’ll end Sunday.

Would-be bettors beware: For any Illinois sports fans who don’t feel like driving to a casino — and who have been hedging about signing up for an online sports betting account for the past nine months — now would be a good time to fire up the gambling apps.

For most of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has waived a provision of the state’s gambling law that requires bettors to sign up in person at a casino before they can lay wagers on the mobile apps that draw the vast majority of legal bets.

But that’ll end Sunday because it’s a precaution that’s “no longer needed,” according to the governor’s office — even as his public health team scrambles to stave off a third surge of the virus.

Analysts of the burgeoning industry are none too pleased, saying it “puts the brakes” on a rapidly growing Illinois market that has attracted almost $1.6 billion in wagers and generated almost $28 million in tax revenue since the state’s first legal bet was placed days before the coronavirus shutdown in March 2020.

With the state’s 10 casinos closed and a massive hole growing in the state budget, Pritzker issued an executive order in June giving Illinois’ 10 new sportsbooks the green light to let customers sign up for accounts from their phones.

The law that introduced legal sports betting to Illinois — signed by Pritzker in 2019 — had been written with the in-person registration requirement to give brick-and-mortar casinos a head start over online gambling giants such as FanDuel and DraftKings, which previously operated in the state under dubious legal circumstances.

But Pritzker’s pandemic order allowed the online sports betting industry — both the existing internet giants and the new casino sportsbooks — to leap to a lucrative Illinois launch once professional athletes started returning to the field last summer. More than 95% of the dollars bet so far in the state have been wagered online.

The governor extended his order in a series of updates to his ongoing statewide disaster proclamation due to the virus, but he left out the sports betting with the latest version that goes into effect this weekend. That means it’s back to in-person registration.

“Illinois is currently in phase four with vaccination rates rapidly increasing and casinos around the state have reopened with safety guidelines in place, so the suspension of in person sports betting registration requirements is no longer needed,” a spokeswoman for the governor said in an email Friday.

Illinois casinos are back open at half capacity, while the state’s rolling average infection rate has jumped by two-thirds over the past three weeks. Not even 18% of residents are fully immunized.

State Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
State Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside.

The in-person requirement could give an advantage to Chicago-area sportsbooks at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines and at Hawthorne Race Course, which also has two suburban off-track betting sites where sports bettors can register.

And it’s an immediate roadblock for the major online-only companies. Chicagoans will have to drive all the way to the Par-A-Dice Casino in East Peoria to register with FanDuel, or even farther to the Casino Queen in East St. Louis to register with DraftKings. analyst Dustin Gouker called it a “poor choice” to bring back the requirement as statewide handles set new records each month.

“Reversing that now essentially puts the brakes on that growth, and will artificially suppress online gaming in Illinois for as long as it is in place,” Gouker said.

State Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, who spearheaded the 2019 sports betting sports betting legislation, suggested lawmakers could take another look at the controversial provision.

“It’s important to remember that without the in-person registration requirement, sports betting would have never been legalized in 2019 as it was a pivotal aspect of an agreement among all the stakeholders,” Zalewski said in a text message. “That being said, the strong revenue numbers generated reflect that Illinois should have a robust online marketplace with no restrictions. I’m hopeful we can continue to modify the law and keep Illinois one of the most successful sports betting states in the country.”

Prospective online bettors have until 11:59 p.m. Saturday to sign up from home or anywhere else with internet or a cellphone signal. After that, they’ll need to go to a casino.

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