Butler: 3 Biggest Successes & Disappointments for 2020 Sports Betting Legislation

Butler: 3 Biggest Successes & Disappointments for 2020 Sports Betting Legislation article feature image
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Kentucky basketball, Jason Miller/Getty Images; LSU football, Chris Parent/Collegiate Images/Getty Images; New England Patriots, Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images.

What started as the most promising year yet for the state-by-state trickle of legal sports betting was, like the rest of life, upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every state legislature was curtailed to some extent, and several ended prematurely this spring as lawmakers scrambled to pass legislation to fund state governments and to combat the virus.

Here are the best developments for legal sports betting legislation, as well as some of the biggest disappointments.

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Most Important 2020 Sports Betting Bills

Only a handful of states would pass significant sports betting legislation this year after more than a dozen seemed poised to do so.

Still, several developments early in the year helped open the door for a group of dynamic markets that should help accelerate the industry’s rapid growth in 2021.

Virginia: Though lawmakers passed legislation to approve the state’s first-ever online sportsbooks and retail casinos in 2019, it would require a second approval in 2020. The second go around garnered even more support than the first, setting Virginia up for as many as a dozen online sportsbooks that are expected to launch in early 2021.

Washington: The Evergreen State’s aggressive push to legalize sports betting early in 2020 proved fortuitous when the year’s legislative session ended early thanks to the virus. The legislation will allow the state’s tribal casinos to open sportsbooks, which are expected to take their first bets sometime next year.

Referendums in Maryland/Louisiana/South Dakota: Voters in Maryland, Louisiana and South Dakota all overwhelmingly approved legal wagering after lawmakers in their respective statehouses approved referendum questions for the 2020 ballots. All three legislatures will have to pass significant follow-up legislation next year, but the resounding “yes” votes underscore the positive momentum for legal betting.

Biggest Disappointments for Legal Sports Betting

Despite early success, the pandemic helped scuttle many promising bills, as state’s had to prematurely end sessions all while balancing budgets and passing critical relief aid.

Several other states continued to meet throughout the year but still couldn’t pass a bill before time expired.

Ohio: Seemingly on the cusp of legal betting after the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill in May, Ohio’s hopes floundered in the Senate for months before ending for the year without a vote. Backers are hopeful for another try in 2021, but will have to do so without many of the biggest supporters that seemed like a safe bet to pass it in 2020.

Massachusetts: With public backing from the Republican governor and the Democratic legislature, Massachusetts seemed like a safe bet to join the growing ranks of legal sports betting. Instead, the legislation never gained much momentum in the statehouse and a last-ditch effort to include it in a larger package of bills fell short.

Kentucky: Supporters are already gearing up for another 2021 try, but 2020 may have been the commonwealth’s last best chance. Approved out of committee without opposition earlier this year, the bill floundered due to opposition from Republican leadership and anti-gambling groups.

With the GOP set to have even more control next year — and, by law, a truncated odd-numbered year session — Kentucky sports betting faces even steeper odds going forward.

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