Ohio Sports Betting Update: Where Things Stand Entering 2021
Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: The Ohio State Buckeyes mascot.
Ohio, which seemed on the cusp of legal sports betting just a few months ago, won’t approve a wagering bill this year.
After five sports betting hearings, including several in recent weeks, an Ohio state Senate committee didn’t take up a legalization bill last week, effectively ending hopes it would pass this year. The full legislature concluded its 2021 session this week.
After a separate bill easily passed the state House of Representatives this summer, it appeared it would be a matter of when, not if, Ohio would approve legal wagering. Instead, the Senate and House could not finalize an agreement that merged their two proposals before the end of a chaotic 2020 legislative session, which saw several lawmakers contract COVID-19 and House Speaker Larry Householder arrested on federal racketeering charges.
Backers in the legislature will start up the 2021 session still hopeful they can pass the long-discussed sports betting legislation, but they must do so with many of the same challenges that sidelined the proposal in 2020 and without three of its leading supporters in office.
Ohio Sports Betting Background
A large population, a growing casino gaming industry and some of the nation’s most well-known professional and college sports teams made Ohio a sought-after target for legal sports betting since the Supreme Court struck down the federal wagering ban in May 2018.
Despite bipartisan, bicameral support, legislation floundered before a House bill that would allow the state’s commercial casinos and hybrid casino-horse track “racinos” to offer retail and online sports bets passed the House easily in May, giving the Senate nearly half a year to either pass their own bill on to the House or reach a compromise on the other legislation.
Over the ensuing six months, the Senate’s General Government committee heard largely positive testimony from the nation’s leading gaming stakeholders, including DraftKings, FanDuel, Penn National (Barstool Sports), Boyd Gaming, MGM and Jack Entertainment, all of which could have access to the Ohio sports betting market through casino partnerships. Meanwhile, leadership in the Republican-controlled legislature, as well as GOP Gov. Mike DeWine, all publicly supported legal wagering.
Still, the bill stalled. Lawmakers in the Senate and House differed between oversight by the state gaming commission and lottery, among other differences, but the bigger factor appeared to be legislative momentum (or lack thereof). With the year-round session truncated by the pandemic — and altered by a change in House leadership following Householder’s arrest — sports betting fell to the wayside amid hundreds of other bills considered in 2020.
Backers fought until the last few weeks of the session, introducing a substitute amendment to ostensibly appease the casino operators that permitted only one online sportsbook license apiece earlier this month. Despite universal support for the amended proposal in the Senate committee, it still never took up the bill for a vote to advance it before the full Senate floor, effectively killing it for 2020.
Possible Next Moves in 2021
Ohio will again be a leading sports betting legalization contender in 2021 as supporters hope last year’s progress can finally help push a bill to fruition. Again, that process may not come easily.
Neither of the 2020 Senate bill’s sponsors will return after Sen. Sean O’Brien lost his 2020 re-election bid and Sen. John Eklund was unable to run again due to term limits. House bill sponsor Dave Greenspan also lost his re-election bid, leaving only Rep. Brigid Kelly among this year’s sports betting sponsors returning in 2021.
Kelly, and/or a new group of sponsors, will have to start the legislative process over again when the 2021 session begins Jan. 4. The framework laid out by the failed 2020 bills is a good start, but the political obstacles that have stalled passage will likely remain.
Meanwhile a new group of lawmakers will have to consider sports betting among a myriad of issues, most notably the state’s continued legislative and fiscal response to the pandemic.
Proponents argue retail sportsbooks at state casinos and, more importantly, legal mobile betting options statewide could help ameliorate the state’s daunting $2 billion budget shortfall. Backers also note that by as early as next month, four of Ohio’s five bordering states (Michigan, Indiana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania) could have legal statewide mobile betting, all of which cater to Ohioans looking to cross state lines to place a bet.
However, the few million dollars Ohio could plausibly generate in monthly tax revenues would, in a best-case scenario, be a small piece of the state’s budget puzzle. The more consequential decisions facing Buckeye State lawmakers will define the 2021 session, and it’s possible a comparatively minor proposal could, once again, fall short in the legislature.
Despite these obstacles, Ohio will be among the most closely monitored of the dozen or so states seriously considering sports betting next year. Backers are still hopeful the early 2020 momentum in the statehouse could help, finally, legalize sports betting in 2021.
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