Historic start for Illinois sports betting with nearly $2bn in 2020 handle

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Having taken nearly $500m in December wagers, Illinois online sportsbooks ended 2020 on their highest note yet, pushing statewide handle for the year to just short of $2bn in bets despite challenging headwinds from continued retail casino closures in December. 

But even as the book on 2020 closed, brisk betting on February’s Super Bowl signals an even bigger year ahead, according to PlayIllinois, which offers news and analysis of the state’s gaming industry.

With the shutters down on retail sportsbooks, Illinois online operators attracted $491.7m in bets in December, up 8.6% from $449.2m in November and representing the fourth-largest handle in the US for the month, behind New Jersey ($996.3m), Nevada ($588m), and Pennsylvania ($548.6m).

December’s bets produced $28.4m in operator revenue, down from $41.3m in November. That yielded $3.6m in taxes for the state. And despite a pandemic that slowed the launch of sports betting until July and deeply impacted retail sportsbooks, Illinois’ retail and online sportsbooks for all of 2020 produced $1.9bn in wagers, $125.5m in taxable revenue and $20.2m in state and local taxes.

Jessica Welman, analyst for PlayIllinois.com, noted: “No state has made a bigger splash in its first year of regulated sports betting than Illinois. But with growth that is expected of any fledgling market combined with, hopefully, a return to more normal life for everyone, 2020 should be a prologue to a year that has the potential of being one of the most lucrative for any legal jurisdiction. 

“The caveat is, though, that a lifting of the current suspension of the state’s in-person registration requirements would have a chilling effect throughout the market.”

Despite the historic start, the best is likely yet to come. Bets on February’s Super Bowl, for instance, reached $45.6m, fourth most among states that released data following the game.

“With results that have rivaled far more established markets, it might be easy to forget that Illinois is still nowhere near its maturity as a market,” said Joe Boozell, analyst for PlayIllinois.com. “The state is still very much ramping up, but there is no question that Illinois will be an increasing force in the industry.”

December’s results were helped by the playoff run of the Chicago Bears, which spurred football betting to $204.4m, or 41.6% of the state’s handle. College basketball and the opening of the NBA season vaulted basketball betting to No. 2 with $441.2m, or 29.3% of Illinois’ handle.

Illinois’ sportsbooks are also getting more creative, which should help bolster their bottom line. Some sportsbooks are now offering odds on where major NFL free agents will eventually sign, the kind of unconventional bet that has made its way to only a handful of states.

“Unconventional bets, prop or otherwise, are more than a fun curiosity for sportsbooks,” Welman said. “They offer new ways for consumers to engage, especially during a sport’s offseason. That is especially true for football betting, which commands more action than any other sport.”

With a $195.4m handle, DraftKings/Casino Queen accounted for 40% of the state’s overall handle. DraftKings’ month was up from $166m overall and $164.1m online in November. FanDuel/Par-A-Dice Casino moved to No. 2 with $144.5m in December, up from $113.5m overall and $113.3m online in November. BetRivers/Rivers Casino slipped to No. 3 with $111.2m, down from $133.2m overall and $125m online in November.

New brands, most notably Penn National’s Barstool-branded app, which is among the most popular in Pennsylvania, will reach new customers and open new sources of revenue, and that will raise expectations for the state.

“The more robust the roster of operators in the state, the better it is for customers,” Boozell said. “The Barstool app should be an important addition, capable of not only grabbing a significant share of the market, but also helping to grow the pie for all.”