These 5 States Look Best Positioned To Legalize Sports Betting In 2021

As the 2021 legislative season starts, legal sports betting will be front-and-center for a handful of states … and will continue to be a frustrating topic for others. Since PASPA fell in May 2018, 24 U.S. states (plus the District of Columbia) have legalized or allowed some form of sports wagering, and 25 have not. Nevada, of course, has had full-fledged legal sports betting for decades. Of the 25 that have no legal sports betting, expect about a handful to legalize this year.

The list below is divided into a group of five that are poised to legalize; another four states where bills have been filed, but it’s unlikely they’ll pass; and five states that could go either way. It’s important to note that I considered only states with no sports betting laws on the books — so states like New York or North Carolina or Montana, where lawmakers have proposed or will pitch expansions, are not on this list.

In addition, California is not on this list because a tribal referendum is nearly set for 2022, and while lawmakers may again try to create their own referendum, it seems certain Indian Country won’t let that happen.

Here’s a look at my prediction of how things will play out:

States with a real shot to legalize in 2021

Arizona

What’s going on now: For the last two years, Sen. Sonny Borelli has pitched bills that would allow both tribal and commercial retail wagering. The state’s tribes have objected, and the bills didn’t gain any traction. Going into 2021, the landscape has changed some — FanDuel signed a deal with the Phoenix Suns, which seems to imply that commercial digital wagering is being seriously considered, and tribal pacts are set to be renegotiated. Sources say a new House bill that includes a mobile component is in the works. The legislative session is only three months long.

Is 2021 the year?: It’s a tossup. If all stakeholders are in agreement when the new bill is filed, then yes. If not, sports betting is too heavy a lift to get done in three months.

Connecticut

What’s going on now: The state’s two tribes and lawmakers have been at loggerheads for the last few years — the tribes claim they have exclusivity to sports betting, but some lawmakers were pushing to allow commercial casinos and sportsbooks, as well. In the last few months, things have changed fairly dramatically — Rep. Joe Verrengia, co-chair of the Public Safety and Security Committee, who has opposed tribal-only legal wagering, did not seek reelection, and two commercial/retail projects in East Windsor and Bridgeport are off the table. In addition, Gov. Ned LaMont is entering his second year with (like counterparts in every other state) a massive budget deficit due to COVID-19, and tribal leaders say he’s become “more of a partner” in recent months. Also, DraftKings and one of the state’s two powerful tribes involved in the state’s gaming industry, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, announced a sports betting partnership.

Is 2021 the year?: Yes. Sen. Cathy Osten, a champion for tribal sports wagering all along, should now be able to shepherd her bill — which the tribes support — through the legislature.

Georgia

What’s going on now: Georgia lawmakers have been considering sports betting for at least two years, the state’s pro sports teams have come out in support of legalizing, and a survey says voters would support it. But a constitutional amendment would be needed — unless the state’s lottery becomes the regulator. Sources say a lottery bill that would permit statewide mobile wagering and a 10% tax on GGR is in the works, but passing such a bill would be short-sighted, as lotteries across the nation have struggled to get sports betting up and running. Operators argue it’s always better to have a gaming commission in charge rather than having a lottery staff try to reinvent the wheel. But if lawmakers decide to go the gaming commission route, the soonest they can put a referendum to voters is November 2022.

Is 2021 the year? Yes, the question is just what will be passed. If time is of the essence, look for lottery-regulated sports betting to pass this session. If not, lawmakers could pass a referendum bill that would go to the voters next year. Either way, live legal sports betting is more than a year away.

Kansas

What’s going on now: One of several states with competing bills over the last few years, Kansas lawmakers could be getting closer to a consensus. Though sources say a Senate draft that could have legs is circulating in Topeka, eight bills had been prefiled in the Senate as of Jan. 4, and sports betting was not among them. In the past the Senate, which favors a gaming commission as the regulator, and the House, which favors not only the lottery as the regulator but also as an operator via 1,200 terminals around the state, have been unable to find a middle ground.

Is 2021 the year? Yes, if there is already a compromise. Otherwise, 2021 will just be another year of frustration for Kansas sports bettors.

Massachusetts

What’s going on now? Of all the states that could have already legalized sports betting but have not, Massachusetts is the most perplexing. State lawmakers have held multiple hearings, crafted a favorable bill from more than a dozen filed in 2019, and have the backing of the governor. Oh, and sports betting titan DraftKings is based in Boston. But the Senate once again shot down sports wagering in November, with one senator saying sports betting isn’t a priority in the face of COVID-19. What’s the holdup? No one really seems to know …

Is 2021 the year? Let’s hope so. There don’t appear to be any major roadblocks.

Bills filed, but no consensus

Florida

What’s going on now: Sen. Jeff Brandes in December filed a bill that would make the lottery the regulator and allow for statewide mobile sports betting, but the powerful Seminole tribe isn’t mentioned anywhere. The tribe is a clear driver of gaming in the state, and it claims exclusivity over sports wagering, so a bill allowing for commercial sports betting likely won’t fly. But there’s plenty of potential for spirited discussion.

Is 2021 the year? Probably not, given that the Seminoles aren’t yet on board.

Missouri

What’s going on now? New year, same dance in the Show-Me State. Once again three lawmakers have pre-filed three competing sports wagering bills that include things like integrity fees, data mandates, and an annual “administrative” fee of up to $50,000. The same or similar bills have been filed in each of the last two years, and until lawmakers compromise, none of them is going anywhere …

Is 2021 the year? Nope.

South Carolina

What’s going on now? Sports betting bills have been pre-filed in both the Senate and House. Legal sports wagering would require voter approval, and both bills would result in a referendum on the November 2021 state ballot. The House bill limits wagering to pro sports only, but on balance, the bills look relatively similar. Lawmakers could easily send sports betting to the voters, but given what a conservative state South Carolina is, even if it gets that far legal sports betting is no sure thing.

Is 2021 the year? Probably not unless lawmakers and voters decide that a budget deficit trumps the state’s distaste for gambling.

Texas

What’s going on now? While not technically sports betting specifically, a casino bill that would legalize Class III gaming (which includes sports betting) has been filed. Gaming would be legal at existing racetracks and tribal casinos with the lottery as the regulator. The bill caps the number of licenses at nine and sets the tax rate at 18% of GGR. Gaming magnate Sheldon Adelson has reportedly been marshaling his troops for a major lobbying push in Texas.

Is 2021 the year? Nope. This is progress but Texas is too big, complex, and conservative for any gaming bill to get approved on the first go-round.

Other states to watch

Kentucky

What’s going on now? Republican Rep. Adam Koenig is up against members of his own party again, and having the backing of a Democratic governor didn’t make much difference last year. With a 30-day session and discord among the ranks, don’t expect any movement. Besides that, there’s an issue with historical horse racing that appears to be taking priority. Gov. Andy Beshear will unveil his budget during his State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday, and sports betting will surely get a few words, if not be listed under income in the budget. It’s clear from Koenig’s and Beshear’s comments already that there is still no consensus, which will likely translate into no legal sports betting this year.

Maine

Lawmakers passed what (most) operators deemed a great bill in 2019 only to have Gov. Janet Mills veto it. And a subsequent veto override effort didn’t muster quite enough support. The bill would have allowed for an open, competitive marketplace, including statewide mobile wagering, a 10% tax rate, and 11 licenses for existing tribal and retail casinos, OTBs, and a harness racing track. Will it be resurrected? Probably, and the question will again come down to Mills. Last time around it seemed that Mills was swayed by the in-state gaming lobby, namely Penn National, wanting to play gatekeeper of licenses. But perhaps a COVID budget crisis could sway her to sign off on the legislature’s will.

Beyond that, there have been some messy politics going on in the Evergreen State, and at least two Republicans have denounced the party — one, John Andrews, was removed from the Veteran and Legal Affairs Committee and has now started the “Don’t Tread on Maine” PAC, which according to the Maine Beacon has received donations from Churchill Downs and FanDuel.

Minnesota

Another state with a significant tribal presence, Minnesota likely won’t legalize sports betting in 2021. Lawmakers have introduced bills here in the past, but the tribes so far aren’t seeing anything they like. Maybe 2021 is a year that both sides could come to the table and hammer out an agreement

Nebraska

In November 2020, Nebraska voters approved a massive expansion of gaming, and “any game of chance” is now legal. Sports betting has long been defined as a “game of skill,” so there is some question as to whether or not sports betting meets the definition of the new law, but there’s also plenty about interpreting this law that is left up to the state legislature. Lawmakers here have previously entertained sports betting, but there is a “two-thirds rule” in play, meaning that a two-thirds vote is required in each chamber to change anything voters approved.

Ohio

With its year-round legislature, Ohio had a chance right up until Christmas to legalize in 2020. The major impediment to legalizing in Ohio last year seemed to be an unwillingness to yield. What happens now is anyone’s guess — the bill authors in the Senate and House aren’t back for the 2021 session, and looking in from the outside, it’s hard to know if that means sports betting lost its best negotiators or if new blood will translate into a smoother road to legalization. The Senate and House were at odds on many fronts, but mainly regarding who should regulate: the gaming commission or lottery. Gov. Mike DeWine remains a supporter, but at this point, who knows?

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