Battle brews over legalized sports betting in Ohio

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CLEVELAND (WJW) — With the eyes of the sports world focused on Cleveland for the NFL Draft, there’s a battle brewing among Ohio’s major league teams, casinos and more.

They all want a stake in legalized sports betting in the state and it may now be closer than ever to becoming reality.

In casinos and through mobile apps, legalized sports betting is growing nationwide, and it could be coming to Ohio with legislation possibly just days away.

“It’s been a tremendous growth story,” said Casey Clark, Senior Vice President of Strategic Communications for the American Gaming Association.

A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision cleared the way for sports betting outside of Nevada. Since then, the American Gaming Association reports 27 states and Washington D.C. have legalized sports betting.

“We’ve seen really remarkable growth in legislatures and appetite for it from American consumers who want a safe, regulated, legal way to bet,” Clark said.

Neighboring Indiana, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have all launched sports betting and Michigan followed in late-January.

Through March, the state reports more than $863 million was wagered on sports in casinos and online, generating more than $2 million in state and city taxes.

“All of that indicates a pretty steep migration from the predatory illegal market that’s been serving the American sports bettor for a long time,” Clark said.

In Ohio, past bills stalled in the state legislature amid disagreement over who should regulate sports betting: the Ohio Lottery Commission or the Ohio Casino Control Commission.

Now, the Ohio Senate is drafting new legislation following weeks of hearings before its Select Committee on Gaming.

Supporters say, without legalization, business and taxes from betting are leaving Ohio as bettors go elsewhere or turn to the black market.

“What we think is most important is bringing that current market into Ohio under a legal umbrella and not creating that need to go to another state or find another outlet,” said JACK Entertainment Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Dan Reinhard.

Casino operators, including JACK Entertainment and MGM Resorts International, want to add sports betting to their gaming portfolios.

“What we hear from our customers is they’re excited for a product like this,” Reinhard said.

He said JACK Entertainment views sports betting not as a profit center but as a way to draw new customers to its properties.

Ohio’s casinos and racinos have argued only they should be authorized to offer retail and online sports betting and can best maintain standards under gaming regulations.

“Most importantly, it’s gambling,” Reinhard said. “Any way we want to paint it, any way we want to look at it, it’s gambling.”

Cleveland’s pro sports teams have told lawmakers this shouldn’t be a casino monopoly, and they, too, want a piece of the profit pie.

“We would like to see legalized sports betting in Ohio as soon as possible,” Haslam Sports Group General Counsel Ted Tywang told lawmakers last month.

In a rare move, Ohio’s professional sports teams last week released a joint statement calling for legalization by the end of June.

“We are the sports in sports betting,” the Ohio Professional Sports Coalition said in the statement.

They want official league data used to settle bets and for each pro sports team to have its own mobile license and retail sportsbook.

“Every sports bet accepted by a gaming operator stems from the content created by all of Ohio’s professional teams,” Cavaliers CEO Len Komoroski told lawmakers last month. “The legislature should allow said teams to capitalize on the very event we’re putting on.”

The Ohio Fair Gaming Coalition has lobbied for small businesses including bars, bowling centers and convenience stores to be able to offer sports betting, too.

But not everyone wants in. The council representing 14 Ohio public universities wants college sports excluded from betting.

“We have compliance issues. It’s expensive. It also potentially compromises the integrity of the game,” Inter-University Council of Ohio President Bruce Johnson said.

Johnson said some of the nearly 6,000 athletes at Ohio’s public universities could be tempted to swing a game or, for example, a roommate could sell information about an injury not previously made public.

“There will have to be somebody watching for the temptation to gamble on a particular sport and then shave points,” Johnson said, noting the associated challenges with policing sports ranging from softball to football.

Opponents say more gambling can lead to more gambling problems.

“We know that the more access there is to gambling, the more people will be negatively impacted,” Problem Gambling Network of Ohio Executive Director Derek Longmeier said.

He said after casinos opened in Ohio in 2012, the number of people with a gambling problem doubled.

“We know that gambling can be a hidden addiction for a really long time,” Longmeier said.

The Problem Gambling Network argues if sports betting is legalized, the state should provide funding for more support services.

“We definitely think that sports betting will be coming to Ohio,” Longmeier said. “The big question is what will sports betting in Ohio look like?”

Lawmakers have said sports betting legislation could be introduced within days. If passed, it would mark a major expansion of gaming, beyond the action on the sports field.

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