Online sports wagering set to take off as Chicagoans bet legally on the Super Bowl for the first time

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune
·7 min read

The Bears may be in hibernation once again, but Chicago fans can still have some skin in the game for this year’s Super Bowl.

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday in Super Bowl LV, Chicagoans can legally wager on the big game for the first time, the culmination of a pandemic-challenged but promising inaugural year of sports betting in Illinois.

The Super Bowl will be different amid a raging pandemic, with stadium attendance capped at one-third capacity, socially distant viewing parties and subdued festivities.

But it remains the biggest betting day of the year, with wagers on everything from which team will win and total points scored, to a host of novelty “prop” bets, such as the coin flip, the length of the halftime show and the color of the postgame Gatorade shower.

Chicago-area viewers can legally bet on all of the above after the state approved sports wagering in 2019 as part of a sweeping gambling expansion bill. An ongoing waiver of an in-person registration requirement during the pandemic has made it easier to sign up with DraftKings, FanDuel and other sportsbook apps to bet online.

“There’s really no other single event that compares to the Super Bowl, from a sportsbook perspective,” said Chris Grove, managing director of sports betting for gambling industry research firm Eilers & Krejcik. “Sportsbooks get more new customers in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, and on the day of the Super Bowl itself, than for any other events across the rest of the calendar.”

While Illinois sportsbooks offer both in-person and online betting, state law requires customers to register at a bricks-and-mortar location before using a mobile app. The pandemic forced the state to suspend that rule.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has suspended the in-person registration requirement for sports wagering seven times since June, allowing bettors to create accounts online through at least Feb. 6 — the day before the Super Bowl.

The waiver enabled Draft Kings, which is partnered with the Casino Queen in East St. Louis, and FanDuel, the online app for the Par-A-Dice in East Peoria, to compete with Chicago sportsbooks for players, giving them an early foothold in the growing Illinois market.

Johnny Avello, head of DraftKings sportsbook operations, said waiving the in-person registration requirement was a “game-changer” in Chicago, eliminating the need to get new customers to travel 300 miles to East St. Louis before betting online with their mobile app.

“We still would have hit the market with DraftKings, but this just allows us to do it in the correct way,” Avello said. “It just makes it so much easier than to say, we’re DraftKings, go to the Casino Queen to sign up.”

The Illinois Sports Wagering Act allows each of the state’s 10 casinos, three horse tracks and seven of the largest sports venues to open a sportsbook. Rivers Casino in Des Plaines was the first to launch last March, but it quickly closed as the state fell under a stay-at-home order.

Rivers Casino began taking online bets in June shortly before it was allowed to reopen its bricks-and-mortar sportsbook.

In July, the first full month of sports betting in Illinois, Rivers Casino and the Argosy Casino Alton generated $52.5 million in wagers. Since then revenues have skyrocketed as six more sportsbooks opened: the Grand Victoria in Elgin, the Hollywood casinos in Joliet and Aurora, the Par-A-Dice in East Peoria, the Casino Queen in East St. Louis and Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney.

In October, DraftKings and Casino Queen surpassed Rivers Casino as the largest sportsbook in Illinois, generating $141 million in bets, with 98% of it wagered online, according to the most recent gaming board data available.

Gamblers bet about $447 million on professional, college and other sporting events in November, most of which was wagered online, according to preliminary revenue totals released Wednesday by the Illinois Gaming Board.

During its third-quarter earnings report in November, DraftKings credited Pritzker’s suspension of the in-person registration requirement for enabling it to “effectively acquire” new Illinois customers.

“Illinois has quickly become the company’s fastest-growing state as well as one of its largest states in terms of handle,” or total amount bet, the company said.

Launched as a fantasy sports platform in 2012, Boston-based DraftKings has evolved into a major player in the burgeoning sports betting industry, with its online sportsbook in 12 states including Illinois. DraftKings went public through a special-purpose acquisition company merger in April.

The company struck a deal in September to partner with the Cubs on a planned retail sportsbook to be developed at Wrigley Field. DraftKings projects revenues of $750 million to $850 million in 2021, up about 45% year-over-year.

New York-based FanDuel, which also started as fantasy sports platform in 2009, has online sportsbooks in 10 states, including Illinois. FanDuel is partnered with the Par-A-Dice Casino in East Peoria.

Mike Raffensperger, chief marketing officer at FanDuel, said the online sportsbook beefed up its Chicago marketing budget after the state waived the in-person registration requirement.

“We absolutely increased our advertising investment,” Raffensperger said. “It’s television, out of home, radio — all of that. We had a very marked increase in terms of our level of marketing investment in Illinois.”

Raffensperger declined to disclose the number of customers FanDuel has signed up in the Chicago area, but said its market share would be “fractional” without the in-person waiver.

But Grove said there is still a vast untapped market of potential bettors, and if the state reverts to in-person registration as the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available, BetRivers and other Chicago-area sportsbooks could well regain the upper hand.

The in-person requirement is set to permanently expire in 2022, when three additional online-only licenses will become available.

“It’s not a genie that can’t be put back into the bottle,” Grove said. “If you bring in-person registration back, you’ll definitely see a competitive advantage for casinos with significant traffic reemerge.”

After reopening in the summer, Rivers Casino and its retail sportsbook, BetRivers, were shut down in late November during a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as its online betting flourished. The casino opened again Jan. 20 with limited hours at 25% capacity, as part of the state’s phased mitigation plan.

Rivers Casino employs its proprietary BetRivers platform for online wagering at its sportsbooks in nine states.

“We’re expecting a lot of sign-ups coming in these next days,” said BetRivers COO Matt Stetz.

While some people enjoy the ambiance of a sports bar, Stetz said the mobile app is “much quicker and easier” to place live in-game bets, which account for about half of the wagers during the Super Bowl.

John Walsh, assistant general manager at Hawthorne, is nonetheless hoping for an old-school, in-person crowd at its newest sportsbook location on Super Bowl Sunday.

Hawthorne, which partnered with PointsBet to launch its racetrack sportsbook in September, opened its first satellite location Wednesday at the Club Hawthorne, a newly remodeled off-track betting parlor in Crestwood with a 163-inch video wall, six self-service kiosks and five betting clerks.

About half of the 21,000-square-foot facility is dedicated to the sportsbook. Under state law, horse racing tracks can utilize up to three off-track betting locations for sportsbooks.

Hawthorne and PointsBet ranked fourth in the total amount bet in October, generating $61 million in sports bets, with 99% of it wagered online, according to gaming board data.

Despite the success of the online sports betting, Walsh said he wants the in-person registration requirement to return when the pandemic subsides, forcing DraftKings and FanDuel recruits to travel hundreds of miles to sign up, and giving a home team advantage to PointsBet and Hawthorne.

Hawthorne is looking to sell other entertainment options to in-person sportsbook players including horse racing, dining and down the road, the state’s first racino. In July, the gaming board issued a finding of “preliminary suitability” for Hawthorne to begin developing a proposed casino at its racetrack.

While online betting will likely rule the day, Walsh expects a “lot of traffic” at the new Crestwood sportsbook on Super Bowl Sunday, even during a pandemic.

“There’s a lot of people that just want to bet $50 on the Chiefs and don’t want to go through the whole thing of signing up, putting your credit card information in and transferring money,” Walsh said. “They can just go up to a machine or a person, buy a ticket, bring it home or watch the game there. There’s nothing better than having something in your hand.”

rchannick@chicagotribune.com