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Ohio’s Legal Sports Betting Bills Remain in Holding Pattern

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Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: The Ohio state flag.

The latest hearing on Ohio’s long-stalled sports betting legislation reaffirmed lawmakers’ commitment to legal wagering in the Buckeye State but did little to advance a bill that has lingered in Columbus for more than a year.

Speaking at a Senate committee meeting Wednesday, Sen. John Eklund said that after extensive work, Ohio’s sports betting legislation could be the “paradigm for this type of legislation in the United States of America.”

“There are many, many shared premises and shared objectives among all the parties involved, and we are listening and formulating refinements,” Eklund said during the Senate’s Government and Agency Review committee hearing Wednesday.

But lawmakers took no firm steps Wednesday to advance the bill.

Eklund, a sponsor of the Senate’s sports betting legalization bill, said there “would be more to follow” in the “not too distant future” and would welcome another hearing, which would be the bill’s fourth. The committee would still have to advance the bill, one of two pieces of sports betting legislation currently in the upper chamber, and then both the full Senate and House of Representatives would need to pass identical versions of the same legislation before it could pass into law.

Committee members spent less than 10 minutes discussing the bill Wednesday, though officials from Boyd Gaming, DraftKings, FanDuel, Jack Entertainment, MGM and Penn National all filed letters of support ahead of Wednesday’s hearing. Gaming industry advocacy group iDEA Growth also filed a letter of support. No opposition testimony was filed for the hearing.

Jack Entertainment Vice President Adam Suliman, whose company operates two casinos in Ohio, was the lone representative to testify before the committee in-person, saying that his company is excited for legal wagering’s potential in the state.

“Our customers tell me regularly that they are looking forward to a day in the near future when they can wager legally on their favorite sporting event,” Suliman said. “It feels like we are very close to providing them with that opportunity, and for that, we are appreciative.”

The support from many of the nation’s largest gaming stakeholders underscores the industry’s continuing support for sports betting legislation in what could be one of the larger markets in the country, but many of the outstanding questions that have stalled legislation for months remain unsettled after Wednesday’s hearing.

Sports Betting in Ohio Remains Stalled

The Ohio state House overwhelmingly approved a sports betting bill in May, but it has gained little traction in the Senate, which has neither taken up the House’s bill nor the Senate-introduced version that was discussed Wednesday.

With most elected officials largely backing legal wagering, legislators have not reached consensus over several key questions, including regulatory control and operator access. The House bill calls for the Ohio Lottery Commission to oversee and regulate wagering, while the Senate version would grant it to the Ohio Casino Control Commission.

Lawmakers have also failed to agree on how many licenses will be allowed and which entities will be permitted to do so. The state’s commercial casinos and hybrid racetrack “racinos” will all likely be permitted to open sportsbooks, but it remains to be seen how many online operators will be able to enter the market and how many will be able to become affiliates with the brick-and-mortar gaming establishments.

Online wagering typically makes up more than 80% of betting handle in mature markets with both digital and retail options. In Colorado, which has closed or restricted operators at its commercial casinos during the COVID-19 pandemic, online wagering made up 98% of total handle in September.

This stalemate comes as several of sports betting’s biggest backers are set to leave office at the end of the year.

Neither of the Senate bill’s two primary sponsors will return for the 2021 session after Sen. Sean O’Brien lost his 2020 race and Eklund will have to leave office due to term limits. The House bill loses one of its two sponsors in Rep. Dave Greenspan, who lost his race, leaving only Rep. Brigid Kelly among sports betting sponsors returning to Columbus next year.

Ohio Sports Betting Background

Even if passed in 2020, Ohio will enter 2021 among a dwindling list of Midwestern states without legal retail and online wagering.

Ohio neighbors Pennsylvania and West Virginia were among the first states with statewide mobile wagering. Indiana, Iowa and Illinois have all launched mobile sportsbooks as well, and Michigan, which took its first retail bet in March, will begin online wagering in the next few months.

Just like retail casino gaming in the 1990s, Iowa sparked similar moves throughout the region. Sportsbook launches have forced lawmakers in neighboring states to allow their gaming establishments to accept sports wagers as well.

But the prolonged regulatory debate has stalled what Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has called an inevitability. With GOP control of both chambers, and Democrats largely supportive, a legal wagering bill should reach DeWine’s desk sooner rather than later, a sentiment backers such as Eklund reiterated Wednesday.

The latest hearing helped clarify that commitment to a path forward, but time is running out for legal betting authorization this year. Bipartisan support will likely remain next year, but a new group of lawmakers would have to spearhead the legislative efforts, a difficult process that will be overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and a looming budget deficit in the statehouse next year.

If the 133rd General Assembly can’t pass sports betting, it makes it even more difficult for the 134th.

Any legislation requires a rules making and regulatory review process, which has taken between three months and a year in most other states. Without quick action in 2020, Ohio sports bettors could be looking toward the latter half of 2021 or the beginning of 2022 before they can place a legal wager in their home state.

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