It would be ludicrous to suggest that sports betting activity is any benchmark for one state to take pride in over another, but if it were, Pennsylvania just found itself humbled by Illinois.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board four weeks ago reported a February sports betting handle of $509.5 million among the state’s retail and online sportsbooks. As had traditionally been the case, it appeared to be the third highest volume in the nation behind New Jersey and Nevada.
And then came a surprise out of Illinois last week. The Illinois Gaming Board, which has more of a lag time in releasing monthly financial reports, stated that its own sportsbooks generated $509.8 million in February handle, exactly $246,772 more than Pennsylvania.
And that’s in a state with a smaller population, fewer sportsbook operators, and a much newer history with the pastime, which only became available in Illinois last year compared to Pennsylvania’s 2018 start. Both states saw a decline in handle in February from January, but that was common nationally, due to the short month and lack of football betting other than the Super Bowl.
It marked the first month that Illinois supplanted Pennsylvania as No. 3 in the nation in sports wagering. If not for a complication in Illinois law that hinders its future handle growth, that new order might be as certain to become customary as Abraham Lincoln finishing ahead of James Buchanan in presidential rankings.
Options are still more plentiful in PA
Pennsylvania’s first retail sports wager occurred in November 2018, half a year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the PASPA ban on most such gambling outside of Nevada. The state’s first online bet — notable because more than 90% of sports wagers are placed online in the state — occurred the following May.
Pennsylvanians 21 and older now have 14 places they can place a sports bet in person and 12 online/mobile betting options (although two of those, BetRivers and PlaySugarHouse, are duplicative sites owned by Rush Street Interactive). The most recent of the 12 online sites, BetMGM and Betfred, both launched in December.
Legalization came later in Illinois, and the first in-person wagering at its casinos only took place in March 2020, just before widespread COVID shutdowns of such activity. Retail wagering returned in July.
Illinois now has six online sites, only five of which were operational in February: BetRivers, which started in June; DraftKings and FanDuel, which entered in August; and PointsBet and William Hill, which added to the Illinois options in September. The Barstool Sportsbook of Penn National Gaming launched in Illinois in March, six months after it debuted in Pennsylvania.
The table below shows how Illinois has closed the gap on Pennsylvania in betting activity since September and finally surpassed it, even with half or fewer the number of online sites:
|Month||Pennsylvania sports betting handle||Illinois sports betting handle|
|September||$462.8 million||$305.2 million|
|October||$525.8 million||$434.6 million|
|November||$491.9 million||$449.2 million|
|December||$548.6 million||$491.7 million|
|January||$615.3 million||$581.6 million|
|February||$509.5 million||$509.8 million|
Who’s bigger, FanDuel or DraftKings? It depends
As is common in legalized sports betting states, FanDuel and DraftKings are the most heavily used sites among the various operators in Pennsylvania and Illinois — only they flip the top spots.
FanDuel’s online handle in February amounted to $176.3 million in Pennsylvania, compared to $111.7 million for DraftKings. FanDuel was able to start several months ahead of DraftKings in 2019.
In Illinois, DraftKings took $196.5 million in online bets in February, compared to $158.4 million for FanDuel. DraftKings got a head start of several weeks on FanDuel in August.
After those fantasy sports titans, the other operators vary in each state, but in both cases that pair represents well over half the betting activity.
But there’s far more room for additional growth in Illinois than Pennsylvania. In addition to Barstool’s arrival in March, Illinois has three more operators expected to start in coming months once they receive regulatory approval: BetMGM, Unibet, and theScore. Pennsylvania has just one more announced, PointsBet.
Those new Illinois sites will have a complication, however, that neither PointsBet nor any other Pennsylvania operator has had to face.
In-person registration returns in Illinois
Illinois is one of a few states allowing mobile betting in which lawmakers included a requirement that customers register for it in person at a retail sportsbook. The provision, while thought to assist land-based casinos, reduces the number of overall online customers by dissuading those unwilling to make the casino visit.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on personal travel, however, prompted Illinois Gov. JD Pritzker last summer to impose an executive order lifting the in-person registration requirement temporarily. He repeatedly renewed that order until this month, with the requirement again taking effect April 4.
So while the vast preponderance of Illinois sports bettors who want to wager online are presumably already doing so, the in-person registration will be some level of hindrance to betting among those just now turning 21 or who would be potential customers for BetMGM, Unibet, and theScore.
If looking for an explanation, well …
As to any explanation for how and why Illinois was able to catch Pennsylvania’s level of betting so quickly in an industry known for the time it takes markets to mature, that’s a little hard to say.
It certainly comes as a surprise, in one sense. When the two states reported the betting handle on February’s Super Bowl, Pennsylvania came out ahead, $53.6 million to $45.6 million.
On the other hand, Pennsylvania showed its oddity surrounding sports betting last November, when it declined in sports betting handle in the midst of the football season while Illinois and other comparable states kept steadily climbing through the fall.
This all comes despite Pennsylvania’s population of 12.8 million being about 200,000 above that of Illinois. Pennsylvania does have a far higher tax rate on sportsbook operators’ revenue — 36% compared to an Illinois base of 15% plus 2% more in Cook County — but that has not been shown to translate into anything done differently by sportsbooks that would reduce betting activity.
Sports betting might be associated more with metropolitan than rural areas, considering attachments to major professional teams, and Chicago’s metropolitan area of 9.5 million residents is third most in the nation. But if the metro areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are combined, they aren’t far behind at 8.4 million.
Both states certainly have millions of rabid sports fans and popular, often successful teams for them to follow and wager on. People no doubt care more about how those teams are doing on the field, hardcourt, or ice than about how their state stacks up in volume of sports wagering.
As for us, this is a different kind of rivalry we’ll be sure to keep following. Pennsylvania’s March sports betting numbers will likely be released late this week, but Illinois’ will only come out next month. That’s one thing, at least, on which Pennsylvania can still claim the lead.