Hitting The Coronavirus Curveball Out The Park

While British gamblers have been able to bet legally online during the coronavirus Covid-19 lock-down, gamers in the United States have faced a frustrating patchwork of state laws giving them limited options for online betting.

In the States virtual betting is still in its infancy.

The state of Delaware, for example, legalised online gaming in 2012, with New Jersey–home to Atlantic City, the east coast’s casino capital–following in 2013. Last year Pennsylvania joined them. Nevada has only allowed online poker since 2013 and still bans other casino-style virtual games.

Nevertheless, despite these hurdles, there’s been a massive uptick in online gaming stateside during the great Covid-19 lock-down.

Virtual bets by Pennsylvanians, for instance, were up by some US$500m in March. Delaware’s online casinos boosted their revenues by two-thirds and New Jersey’s intake soared by 23 per cent.

Nevada’s online poker rooms, likewise, have reported booming traffic in the wake of the shutdown.

But these four states, where online gaming is legal, only represent eight per cent of the country’s population.

And online gambling remains illegal across state lines, a law that online casinos try to enforce assiduously; using “geofencing” technology, collecting Wi-Fi and GPS data and the IP address, to make sure the would-be gambler’s phone or computer is inside, and not outside, the state.

Meantime, betting on sports is an obvious additional option to real-world touch-and-see gambling.

In 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court scrapped Las Vegas’s monopoly on this.

Eighteen states now have established markets, allowing 100m Americans to bet legally with their local bookmakers. And a nascent industry has sprung up.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision, DraftKings and FanDuel, two firms that once combined elements of fantasy sports and pure wagering, have started taking bets on sports across the country.

Last September Fox, the Murdoch family’s media conglomerate, did the same.

And some traditional casino companies, like Caesars Entertainment, have expanded their sports-betting operations beyond Nevada.

The gambling industry as whole, however, has taken a big hit from the pandemic.

Most North American professional sports leagues have been inactive during the lock-down. And bookmakers in the U.S. have resorted to taking bets on South Korean baseball and Belarusian football, for example.

E-sports, which have attracted a rocketing number of viewers during the pandemic, have become popular flutters as well.

But none of these has the same weight of betting as Major League Baseball (MLB) the National Hockey League (NHL) or the National Basketball Association (NBA). All these top sports would have been well into their season by now.

The hit has been huge. Wagers on sport at bookmakers in New Jersey fell by 68% in April, in illustration.

Nevertheless investors are optimistic.

The price of DraftKings’ shares has doubled since they were listed in April. And sports betting may yet have its moment later this year.

Baseball, hockey and basketball leagues are all discussing returns this summer, and the National Football League still plans its usual autumn kick-off.

Many gamblers, still wary of lingering in crowded casinos, may turn to sports betting and online gaming as an accessible form of socially distant gambling.

And it looks like it’s going to become easier for them to do so.

With state governments’ coffers depleted by reduced business activity and increased spending, legislatures may turn to the old tactic of simply legalising a black market industry and taxing it.

They’ve done it before. Financial woes caused by the 2008 recession prompted eight states to loosen gambling restrictions and led to the opening of a number of new casinos and horseracing tracks — and millions of dollars more in tax revenues.

In the wake of Covid-19, many legislators are keenly interested in allowing sports betting, eyeing the US$36m New Jersey’s authorities collected from this last year.

Washington State, Virginia and Oklahoma have all legalised sports betting in some fashion since the pandemic began. Similar legislation is now being considered in Ohio, Massachusetts and, most notably, for the 40m residents of California.

Other states may further liberalise and permit even broader online betting.

As one pundit notes: “At the end of the day politicians are going to find new ways to plug their falling revenues. And people who love gambling are going to find a way to gamble regardless of the situation.

“Looking to the future, here in The States you’re going to see more and more online gambling. You can bet on it.”

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