Arkansas Mobile Sports Betting Bill Reaffirms Southern Interest

Arkansas Mobile Sports Betting Bill Reaffirms Southern Interest article feature image
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Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images. Pictured: Arkansas State Capitol.

Arkansas lawmakers filed a statewide online sports bill Monday, the latest proposal introduced in a southern state with limited gambling options considering joining the growing national digital wagering market.

Sponsored by Republican Rep. Lee Johnson, the bill would permit as many as 12 statewide mobile licenses, or “skins.” Johnson’s proposal joins a host of other politically conservative and gambling-averse states southern that have considered 2021 online sports betting bills, including Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and neighboring Texas.

Tennessee is Arkansas’ only current bordering state that permits statewide mobile wagering. Voters in the majority of Louisiana’s parishes approved legal wagering in a 2020 ballot measure and lawmakers are considering mobile legislation this year.

Arkansas’ 2021 legislative session is scheduled to end later this month, leaving little time for any bill, let alone something as controversial as legal gaming. Still, Johnson’s proposal underscores regional interest for online wagering, even in some of the nation’s most historically anti-gambling states.

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Arkansas Gaming Background

Despite its role as one of the nation’s underground gambling epicenters in the first half of the 20th century, Arkansas policymakers have largely resisted most legal gambling for generations. Voters broke decades of anti-gambling policy when they supported a 2018 ballot measure that permitted up to four commercial casinos, each of which could open retail sportsbooks.

The bill allowed Oaklawn Park Race Track, home of the Arkansas Derby, as well as the Southland Racing greyhound track to open full-scale “Las Vegas style” casinos. A new casino opened in Pine Bluff last year while the fourth permitted under the law, in Pope County, has been delayed by regulatory and political issues.

Since accepting its first wager in July 2019, Arkansas has recorded only $55 million in total handle, the lowest of the roughly 20 jurisdictions taking bets. A 2020 referendum that would have permitted 16 additional casinos was not included in last year’s ballot.

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National Implications

The 2021 online sports betting proposal faces an uphill climb politically despite the brick-and-mortar casino breakthrough.

Stalled or failed casino efforts in Pope County and statewide shows gambling remains a divisive issue in one of the nation’s most politically conservative regions. Neighboring Mississippi, the first southern state to legalize casino gambling in the 1990’s and retail sportsbooks in the 2010’s, has not seriously considered statewide mobile sports betting.

However, Arkansas online betting bill shows interest remains for a politically controversial, yet increasingly common form of mobile gambling among much of the country.

Online wagering makes up 80% or more of annual betting handle in mature markets such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, a percentage that could be even higher in a sparsely populated state such as Arkansas. Though even statewide mobile betting is a small revenue generator for state governments, advocates argue that it’s still millions of dollars otherwise going to untaxed black-market bookies or unregulated offshore sites.

Politics and timing make passing Johnson’s 2021 bill logistically improbable this regular session, but it adds to the growing list of states considering online wagering bills and again shows the interest for mobile betting in even the most traditionally most opposed states.

It may be years until more southern states embrace online sports betting but the flurry of legislation in statehouses across the region reaffirms at least some lawmakers believe a breakthrough is possible.

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