On the cusp of the football season, both college and NFL, it’s understandable that Maryland sports fans are getting antsy about sports gambling.
The drumroll for the start of Maryland sports betting feels like it’s been going on forever, and TV ads featuring wagering have even been running for quite a while, whetting the gambling public’s appetite.
However, let’s get something straight. Maryland is ringed by states with sports gambling. So, any Maryland sports fan with an irresistible urge to get money down on the Ravens or the University of Maryland or the Washington Football Team has the opportunity to dash off to Virginia or Pennsylvania or Delaware or West Virginia or even Washington D.C.
What’s missing more immediately, of course, is the opportunity to sit at home, dial into Red Zone and make NFL bets on a whim on a smart phone. And that, unfortunately for Marylanders with that particular itch, is going to happen later rather than sooner, meaning in 2022.
Retailers Will Be First
The point has already been made that retail sports wagering licenses will be handed out first, so even when Maryland sports betting launches sometime during the 2021 football season, fans will still have to leave the couch and travel to a bricks-and-mortar sportsbook.
For all practical purposes that will be to one of the state’s large casinos — Live! (Anne Arundel County south of Baltimore), the Horseshoe (Baltimore City) or MGM National Harbor (across the Potomac from D.C. in Prince George’s County).
However, speed should not be the driver in launching expanded Maryland gambling. Getting it right is far more important.
The Maryland sports wagering law is truly unique — and I don’t use the word lightly. There really is nothing close to it in the country.
The law has been written to give opportunity to enter the sports betting industry to smaller businesses, notably businesses that are minority-owned and women-owned. That has not been done anywhere else in the U.S. In fact, in North Carolina, during recent legislative discussions regarding sports gambling, the state senator who sponsored the sports betting law under consideration made the point that the state should only be interested in large, established sports gambling operators and dismissed the idea of smaller businesses.
To be sure, the Maryland plan that would allow for retail sports books to be operated by businesses so modest that they have fewer than 25 employees could wind up being exposed as overly optimistic real-world practice. That jeopardy increases if the agencies tasked with getting this right fail to identify the right applicants.
Online To Face Slow Process
The road to sports betting licensing includes a stop at the Sports Wagering Application Review Commission — an appointed panel — that will, well, review the applicants (particularly how they line up in terms of diversity and inclusion), and award the licenses. Then applicants have to pass muster with the professional regulatory agency folks, the Maryland Lottery & Gaming Control Agency, which does the vetting on things like criminal backgrounds.
In addition, part of all this scrutiny should be making sure that applicants have the wherewithal to compete in a fiercely competitive industry that is dominated by experienced, aggressive actors who have already shown in state-after-state that they’re willing to lose millions and millions of dollars to capture market share.
Granted, that has mainly been on the online side of the sports betting industry, and the retail end of it may not be nearly as cut-throat, but making sure that the right applicants are approved still won’t be easy.
With about 40 retail licenses available (three going to the aforementioned large casinos that figure to dominate as well as another handful to pro sports franchises) in a state with less than 4 million gambling eligible folks by age, that will be stretching the market a little thin. Yet, Maryland is embarking on a new course of making the sports wagering industry inclusive.
Frankly, there’s a chance some smaller sports books eventually will just give it up because it’s more work and trouble than it’s worth. More likely, some of the smaller operators will find that sports gambling is marginally accretive to an existing business, say a sports bar or restaurant, and not be the windfall they anticipate.
Should any of them take that leap into online along with a bigger, more technologically muscular partner, that will be an additional challenge. And the state will have to deal with the fallout if any of these businesses – perish the thought – wind up not being able to pay off winning bets (remember, sports wagering is a house banked game).
So, yes, Maryland sports fans want the convenience of close-by sports betting, either a short drive to a sportsbook or even as close as their cell phones. And, yes, this is an age of immediate gratification and impatient consumerism. But the Maryland sports wagering experiment is too grand a concept to risk unforced errors because of impatience.