U.S. Sports Betting Handle Hits Record as Casinos Bounce Back Slowly

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Erick W. Rasco /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images. Pictured: The Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate an interception.

American sportsbooks recorded their highest monthly handle and second-highest monthly revenue total this August, according to an American Gaming Association report released Tuesday. The eye-popping numbers reaffirmed sports betting’s momentum in the roughly 30 months since it’s been allowed to expand nationwide.

It further underscored the importance of online gaming; land-based commercial casinos, due to closures and reduced patronage, are still below last year’s revenues even as sports betting figures jumped.

Sportsbooks Set Records

Americans wagered $2.1 billion in August 2020, an all-time single-month record. Sportsbooks generated $119.4 million in revenue, trailing only the $138 million held in January 2020. The August 2020 revenue total was a 90.2 percent increase from August 2019.

These August totals don’t include the $136.9 million wagered and $7.2 million in revenue held in Illinois, which released revenue figures too late for the AGA report.

New Jersey set the highest single-month handle total of any state ever with $668 million in wagers. Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia also all set their single-month handle records in August.

Nationally, 2020 sports betting revenues are up 31.5 percent compared to the first eight months of 2019 and handle is up 24.1 percent during that same time. Online wagering makes up more than 80 percent of handle and revenue in mature markets, and some states with closed or restricted brick-and-mortar casinos eclipsed 90 percent.

Bolstered by an unprecedented sports calendar featuring late-summer NBA and NHL playoff series along with a full month of Major League Baseball games, the sports betting record was nevertheless set with neither college nor professional football, historically the most lucrative sports for sportsbooks. With the NFL and select NCAA football teams resuming play in September, the August handle and revenue records could be short-lived.

Along with football’s return, American sports betting is bolstered by big moves in some of its largest markets.

Illinois, the sixth-largest state by population, had only three live online sportsbooks in August. It launched two more digital books in September, meaning that as long as mobile registration is permitted, Illinois sports betting handle and revenue should continue to grow.

In Pennsylvania, home-state operator Penn National set initial download records when its inaugural Barstool Sportsbook app launched in September. The nation’s fifth-most populated state and third-largest sports betting market (behind New Jersey and Nevada), Pennsylvania recorded $365 in August handle, a 234.7 percent increase from the same time a year earlier.

With football slated to continue through the end of the calendar year, and Tennessee, as well as possibly Michigan and Virginia, set to launch online sportsbooks in the coming months, the state and nationwide totals should only continue to grow in 2020’s remaining months.

Casinos’ Slow Recovery

The huge sports betting numbers come as brick-and-mortar casinos still struggle.

Though commercial gaming saw its fourth consecutive month of revenue gains since every casino was shut down in April, August gross gaming revenue barely touched $3 billion, down 19.8 percent from the same time a year earlier. COVID-19 concerns, as well as an abnormally busy hurricane season, continue to hinder in-person gaming’s viability.

Some states, including Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, all saw year-over-year growth in August, but remaining closures and capacity limits still handicap the market overall. Year-to-date gross gaming revenue is $17.54 billion, a 39.4 percent decrease from that same time period a year ago.

“The path to a full recovery is still long,” the AGA wrote in its revenue report.

Meanwhile, internet gaming continues to boom.

Though legal in only a handful of states, iGaming grossed $145.3 million in revenue in August 2020, a 224.2 percent increase from August 2019. Year to date, iGaming has garnered $923.1 million in revenue, a 203.3 percent increase.

While sports betting has been legalized in roughly two-dozen states since the Supreme Court struck down the federal wagering ban in May 2018, iGaming has been a more difficult legislative challenge. With most state legislatures adjourned for the year – and the 2020 elections looming – meaningful legislation seems unlikely before the start of 2021. Most lawmakers will return to their respective statehouses next January facing budget shortfalls, but it remains to be seen if those gaps and the strong iGaming figures will compel online gaming legislation.

In the meantime, the growing, online-driven sports betting market will likely continue to set records. So too will online casino gaming, especially with the struggles facing brick-and-mortar facilities for the foreseeable future.

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