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Local Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: NFL season kicks off a new era of sports betting in Illinois

Despite beating Detroit twice in 2019, the Chicago Bears are three-point underdogs for Sunday’s season opener against the Lions.

I haven’t cared much about the Bears since they squandered Devin Hester’s Super Bowl kickoff return in 2007, but it’s worth noting Sunday represents the first time Illinoisans can legally bet on the Monsters of the Midway from inside the Land of Lincoln.

It’s been more than 850 days since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which substantially outlawed sports wagering in 49 of 50 states. We’ve gone through two entire NFL seasons — not to mention the other pro team sports, college basketball and football, boxing and mixed-martial arts matches and horse races — while Illinois lawmakers tried to figure out a way to let the state’s residents in on the action.

It’s not like gambling is verboten in the Prairie State. The lottery launched in the mid-1970s, and racetracks were big business before land-based and riverboat casinos joined the scene. A few years ago a cash-strapped Legislature sanctioned video parlors, bringing touch-screen money-takers to scores of restaurants, bowling alleys, truck stops and strip malls statewide.

Sports betting didn’t open up legally until March 9 this year, just in time for all sports to pretty much shut down while we tried to figure out how to mitigate spread of COVID-19. Although that problem hasn’t exactly been solved, the NFL is continuing unabated (for now!) and that means we might finally get to see a real inkling of how wagering might affect government revenues.

The consumer appetite is evident. There are three current options for Illinois residents to sign up online, while public plans could double that market quickly. The biggest news on this front was the report last week of the Cubs partnering with DraftKings to create the largest individual sports book in the country somewhere on the Wrigley Field campus.

That facility won’t open until 2022 at the earliest, but even the announced framework should be enough to get gears turning in other front offices in the city and state, especially with no clear timetable for when teams can reliably count on game day revenue. As the Bears start a season with the real possibility of zero ticket sales or concessions, the NFL Players’ Union is already maneuvering to get its cut in the next round of collective bargaining. 

Legalized gambling, limited in-person attendance and a lack of other entertainment options should drive NFL broadcast ratings through the roof this weekend and all season long, even if the Bears won’t be very good. You guys watch the players, I’m paying attention to the point spread, the books’ haul and especially the government take.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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