Why PA Sportsbooks Can’t Offer Betting On ESports

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With sports shut down in the U.S. and most countries around the world, operators in states with live, legal mobile sports betting continue to look for new opportunities. In recent weeks, some states have increased their sportsbook offerings, including Indiana and Nevada, which now have some eSports events available to bet on. And it very nearly became legal last week in West Virginia to bet on political contests.

But Pennsylvania — which legalized sports betting before the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in May 2018 — has a more restrictive or specific law. Betting can only take place on “sporting events.”

But what is a sporting event? A sampling of mobile sportsbooks across the state shows that includes anything from skill games like billiards or snooker to true athletic endeavors like football, baseball, and basketball.

So, what about eSports, and, in particular eNASCAR, which is now available to bet on at mobile books in Nevada and New Jersey?

“You could argue that it is a sport,” one industry source said. “There is the argument that it’s using reflexes and that makes it a sport. Some people would say it’s a lot like [regular] NASCAR.”

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PA law limits what a sporting event is

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board doesn’t see it that way. According to PGCB spokesman Doug Harbach, “The board determined that eSports does not fit the statutory definition of what is permitted for sports wagering under the act.”

HB 271, the broad gambling expansion law in October 2017 that authorized sports betting, allows wagering on “sports events or on the individual performance statistics of athletes in a sporting event or combination of sporting events.”

Operators would like, of course, to be able to stretch the definition of “sporting event” to include eSports. In some states, legislation allows for “sporting events” and “other events,” in which case eSports and non-athletic alternatives could be fair game. In fact, in Indiana and New Jersey, the Academy Awards are listed as a legal betting event.

“I think there is some room for improvement in Pennsylvania, specifically, just increasing that dialogue with the bookmakers,” said Arnas Janickas, vice president of marketing US for the Kindred Group. “One good example is eSports, which has performed well with no [trouble]  throughout the world. There is a certain level of confidence between bookmakers and the regulators. There are a number of events that we can confidently say that Pennsylvania could offer. And eSports is one of them.”

The Kindred Group operates in Pennsylvania under the Unibet banner and is one of nine mobile sportsbooks in the state.

Operators say they’ve approached the PGCB about expanding the available options.

“PGCB have been engaged and receptive to industry feedback, but it’s an ongoing dialogue.” Janickas said.

Another industry source said conversations with the PGCB on this front have been “light” and there has been little interest from the regulator.

Expect PA’s March handle to nosedive

In the current climate, with U.S. professional sports shut down in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, any addition to the available offerings is an opportunity for both operators and the state to recoup some lost revenue.

Though the PGCB won’t report its March sports betting numbers until later this week, they are surely far down from the nearly $330 million in handle in February. With the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, March is typically one of the best months of the year for a sportsbook. The cancellation of the tournament in addition to other main offerings has hurt sportsbooks across the country. On Monday, Iowa reported the sports betting handle decreased more than 65% from February to March.

What operators are finding is that there is an appetite for eSports, whether that be the eNASCAR iRacing events that Nevada and New Jersey added earlier this month or the more traditional eSports games like League of Legends or Counter-Strike. One operator said his company had 25,000 actives when League of Legends was introduced.

Be that as it may, it appears that if Pennsylvania sportsbooks want eSports — or anything else that’s not quite a “sport” — they’ll have to approach state lawmakers for a change. The PGCB, meanwhile, has approved new types of wagering and new events involving athletic competition that fit the law’s definition since the spread of COVID-19 shut down major sports, and Harbach said it will continue to do so.

“Prior to COVID-19’s interruption of mainstream sports, we were continually getting requests for approval for new types of wagers,” he said. “Since that time, we continue to get, consider, and approve new wagers, in particular on athletic events that operators did not previously offer wagers on.”

While the PGCB says it does not publicize the list of events that could be wagered on, it’s likely that Belarus soccer, snooker, and table tennis are among the recent additions.

Photo by Roman Kosolapov / Shutterstock.com

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Jill R. Dorson

Jill has covered everything from steeplechase to the NFL and then some during a more than 30-year career in sports journalism. The highlight of her career was covering Oakland Raiders during the Charles Woodson/Jon Gruden era, including the infamous “Snow Bowl” and the Raiders’ 2003 trip to Super Bowl XXXVII. Her specialty these days is covering sports betting legislation across the country.

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