Illinois sportsbooks to get license applications in next six weeks but still no timetable for launch

Casinos, horse racetracks and Chicago sports arenas are expected to jump on the applications upon release in December.

State gambling regulators expect to release license applications for potential sports betting operators next month, marking the first major step toward launching the industry in Illinois since it was legalized over the summer.

Illinois Gaming Board administrator Marcus Fruchter announced Thursday the applications will be available on or before the agency’s next board meeting Dec. 19 “barring any unforeseen circumstances.”

It’s not clear how long it will take the Gaming Board to process applications and issue sports wagering licenses, which will cost up to $10 million each and, for the first 18 months of the industry’s rollout, are limited to casinos, horse racetracks and large sports arenas.

After that 18-month “penalty box” period, online-only betting sites such as FanDuel and DraftKings will be able to apply for licenses at a whopping $20 million apiece.

Most of Illinois’ 10 existing casinos and all three of the state’s horse tracks have said they’ll pursue sports betting licenses. Sports arenas with capacities of 17,000 or more — such as Wrigley Field and the United Center — are also eligible to open sportsbooks either inside or within five blocks of the stadium.

Those physical establishments will also be able to offer mobile and online betting, with bettors registering in person before they can place sports wagers on their phones.

But the Gaming Board still hasn’t said when that could happen. It depends on how many entities apply for the licenses — and how closely they follow yet-to-be announced application procedures, Fruchter said after a Thursday Gaming Board meeting.

“There are a lot of things to be looked at here, and we’re going about our business to look through it in a deliberate manner, within the resources that we have,” he said.

Sports wagering was a priority for Gov. J.B. Pritzker as part of the massive gambling expansion law he signed in late June, which also authorized six new casinos and expanded video gambling machines statewide. Tax revenue from the expansion is earmarked for his signature $45 billion capital plan.

Sponsors of the sports betting law initially estimated the industry could launch in time for the NFL kickoff in September. But a rollout in time for the Super Bowl in February might still be too optimistic.

As evidenced by numerous emails received by the Gaming Board in a public comment period, eager Illinois bettors have been impatient to see sports betting roll out as the industry launched over the summer in Iowa and Indiana. The closest sportsbook to Chicago opened ahead of the NFL season just across the border in Hammond, Indiana.

Indiana netted more than $813,000 in tax revenue on the more than $35.2 million that was plunked down in Hoosier casinos during the first month of that state’s sports betting in September.

And Illinois will take a much larger chunk of the action in taxes than its Indiana counterparts, where brick-and-mortar sports betting licenses cost just $75,000 and the state takes just 9.25% of sportsbooks’ revenue collected after paying out winners. Most Illinois books will be taxed at 15%, or 17% in Cook County.

While Indiana casinos started taking sports wagers, the Gaming Board was still drafting hundreds of pages of rules governing sports betting that weren’t outlined in the Illinois law, no easy lift for an agency that insiders say was overworked and understaffed even before the number of state gambling options it oversees nearly doubled with this year’s expansion.

The agency is also combing through applications from 10 potential casino operators vying for five of the six newly authorized casino licenses under the Illinois gaming expansion. The fate of that sixth casino license, pegged for Chicago, is up in the air as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office haggles with state lawmakers over its ownership and tax structure.

Most of the contenders who submitted casino applications last month have also indicated they’ll apply for sports betting licenses, but they can’t until they’re granted a casino license.

Fruchter declined to estimate how long it’ll take to vet those casino applicants. By law, the Gaming Board has up to a year to consider them.

“We are going about it in an expeditious and deliberate manner to make sure that our review is transparent and independent and thorough,” Fruchter said.