In June 2019, sports betting became legal in Illinois. A year later, Rivers Casino launched BetRivers to give the state its first online sports wagering platform. Now, five additional online sportsbooks have launched to give Illinois residents more options to choose from.
But one facet of gaming that has yet to be legalized is online casino gaming, and it’s an area Tom Swoik, a state government lobbyist for the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said he believes can be beneficial to the state.
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“IGaming still is an untapped market in Illinois,” Swoik said. “Seeing what’s happening in other states with internet gaming, especially in New Jersey, it hasn’t had a negative effect on casino brick-and-mortar operations that people thought it might have.”
Swoik and the people he represents will have enough data to showcase how online casino gaming can help drive revenue even during a pandemic. When casinos were closed in April, New Jersey had nearly $80 million in revenue with $74.8 coming from online casinos and $5.15 from online poker. The total revenue was more than double the $36.6 million from April 2019, displaying people’s willingness to bet online even in a pandemic.
“We’ve also seen admissions in casinos in New Jersey increase because people started coming back,” Swoik said. “Or, it was new people coming that had a good time doing it online and so they decided to go to the casinos.
“If we had iGaming when all the casinos had to shut down for three-and-a-half months, that not only would have helped the industry, but it would have helped the state out with tax collections, too, and they wouldn’t have lost as much money.”
During a special Committee on Gaming session held by the Illinois Senate in April, Swoik spoke at the virtual meeting and lobbied for iGaming to be considered as a new source of revenue for the state. According to Swoik, of the nine casinos he represents, all of them are in favor of adding iGaming.
Still, Swoik understands there are numerous hurdles remaining before getting online casino gaming legalized. The state recently underwent an expansion bill in June 2019 that brought an additional six casinos, slot machines and table games at the race tracks and an increase in gaming terminals, in addition to sports wagering. It was a large bill, but it didn’t contain online casino gaming. So on the heels of that bill, Swoik knows it may be difficult to convince the legislature of adding something as big as online casino gaming.
“It’s gonna be a tough sell,” Swoik said. “Everybody’s looking to see what’s going to happen. That being said, with the problem of coronavirus and revenues being down so much this year, my personal feeling is that they’re going to be looking for any way to increase revenues, and iGaming is certainly one of those.
“There are some legislators that have been very supportive of gaming and expanding gaming, however, they are opposed to internet gaming. It’s not gonna be an easy road, but I don’t think it’s going to be impossible, either.”
He doubts anything regarding iGaming will take place during the veto sessions in November and December, but is more optimistic for more discussions about iGaming during the first week of January 2021 when the new state sessions start. Among the issues Swoik expects to address concerning those who may be hesitant to support iGaming, is the underage gaming that could take place online and responsible gaming.
But with an online sports betting infrastructure in place and other states seeing revenue increases during the pandemic, Swoik said Illinois has the opportunity to expand its gaming operations with iGaming.
“The Internet opens up a whole new avenue, and especially with times changing,” Swoik said. “I think it’s going to be a long time before people are comfortable getting back to normal and going to places as frequently as they have in the past. I think iGaming is one way to still keep moving forward.”