For more than 25 years, the federal ban on sports wagering, PASPA, ensured that the sports betting industry was mostly relegated to Nevada.
That all changed in May 2018, when the US Supreme Court ruled on Murphy v. NCAA, concluding that PASPA was unconstitutional and ripping it off the books. This historic decision effectively granted individual states the power to legalize sports betting.
Pennsylvania is now one of the first states to take advantage, having passed legislation which allowed the state’s brick-and-mortar casinos to offer both live and online sports betting to their patrons. Several real-world betting locations are up-and-running, and early reports of activity of very promising for the burgeoning industry.
The state has now finally begun launching online options (well ahead of the planned July 15 date for online casinos and poker). PlaySugarHouse secured the first launch on May 28, 2019, with more sites expected in the coming days and weeks.
Here’s what you need to know about the current legality of sports betting in the Keystone State, and the future of the highly-anticipated industry in the state.
PA sportsbook licensees
So far only one online sportsbooks has gone live in the state, but many physical locations have opened temporary facilities. Other casinos have also submitted applications which are still being approved.
Here is the current status of licences:
|Penn National||William Hill||Grantville||Live (retail)|
|Parx Casino||GAN||Bensalem||Live (retail)|
|Harrah's Philadelphia||Scientific Games/(Kambi?)||Chester||Live (retail)|
|SugarHouse Casino||Kambi||Philadelphia||Live (retail and online)|
|Rivers Casino Pittsburgh||Kambi||Pittsburgh||Live (retail)|
|Valley Forge||IGT/GAN||King of Prussia||Live (retail)|
|Presque Isle Downs||BetAmerica||Erie||Q2 2019|
|Mohegan Sun||Kindred (Formerly Unibet)||Wilkes-Barre||Q3 or Q4 2019|
|Mount Airy||BetStars||Mount Pocono||TBD|
Victory for sports wagering
New Jersey takes action
Since 1992, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act banned all sports betting in most of the United States. New Jersey was given a short window in which to pass its own sports betting legislation in order to be grandfathered as an exception like Nevada, but Garden State lawmakers couldn’t come to an agreement on a bill in time, essentially shutting NJ out of what could have been a very lucrative industry.
Realizing its missed opportunity, NJ passed the Sports Wagering Act in 2012 to allow sports betting at licensed New Jersey casinos and racetracks despite the overarching PASPA prohibition. Five sports leagues subsequently sued to stop them, so then Governor Chris Christie brought a case before the US Supreme Court to argue that PASPA violates states’ rights under the 10th amendment.
Oral arguments were heard in December 2017, with the justices appearing open to New Jersey’s perspective. On May 14, 2018 a decision was handed down that PASPA violated the “anti-commandeering” principle and as such was struck down as unconstitutional.
As a result New Jersey finally overcame this obstacle to join Nevada in sports betting, needing only to finalize its own specific regulations to begin allowing sportsbook licenses.
Results for other states
Initially there was some concern that SCOTUS could choose a partial decision which would leave parts of PASPA in place and only allow sports wagering for New Jersey. In this outcome each other state would then be responsible for a lengthier process of fighting their own legal battle in the same vein.
Fortunately, Murphy v. NCAA resulted in the complete negation of the law. This leaves the rest of the country in a relatively much easier position to self-regulate on a state level, at least until Congress potentially passes a new Federal law.
Pennsylvania’s sports betting law and framework
Pennsylvania did not dally on the prospect of legalizing sports betting within its borders. In 2017 lawmakers passed an expansive gambling package which, aside from regulating online gambling, also included an option for the state’s casinos to open their own sportsbooks once New Jersey prevailed in its case.
The law allowed the state’s licensed casinos to pursue sports wagering on sporting events, although the exact minutiae took some time to work out. Physical sportsbooks began launching in late 2018, with online options beginning to spring up in 2019.
Huge taxes and fees will test profitability
Since PASPA was overturned, PA slot licensees have the opportunity to offer single-game sports wagering both live and through Internet sites, but not every operator is choosing to do so. Running sports betting comes at a huge price in terms of fees and taxes, and this will likely cause some venues to opt out due to concerns over profitability.
To get up and running, venues need to pay the following:
- $10 million licensing fee
- 34% tax on gross gaming revenue
- 2% local share assessment tax
- .25% federal excise tax on handle
In total, sportsbooks will be giving back around 41% of their profits, a huge chunk for a vertical known for razor-thin margins.
For comparison, New Jersey’s currently plans to impose much more reasonable taxes on revenues. The most recent bill stipulates:
- 8.5% on gross gaming revenues for bets made in-person at a physical sportsbook
- 13% on gross gaming revenues for online and mobile wagers
- 1.25% local share
- $100,000 per license
What’s more, professional sports leagues are still asking for so-called “integrity fees”, which require operators to hand over a small percentage of their entire handle (up to 1%) to the leagues. These fees can theoretically equate to as much as 20% of revenue and put the nail in the coffin of the industry altogether, as the profitability would be reduced for operators below what is necessary to make the venture worthwhile.
Luckily the introduction of an integrity fee is an unlikely scenario. PA passed its legislation before they became a hot topic, and so far other markets that have introduced sports betting have rejected the league demands and launched operations without the fees. It is true that Congress could implement legislation that would require these fees, so far the only federal action in this area has been a Senate bill that instead has focused on a similar but lesser push by the sports leagues: data requirements.
Sensing the fight for integrity fees was lost, the major professional sports leagues are instead now requesting a legal ruling that sportsbooks only purchase vital data directly from them instead of other sources. This is still onerous and limiting – as well as unnecessary since professional sports are seeing massive revenue increases thanks to new legal betting – but possibly not as industry-destroying as the original fee requests would have been.
Shortsighted money grab could have long-term consequences
PA sportsbook fees are undoubtedly massive, but come as no surprise in a state where lawmakers routinely squeeze casinos for the most cash possible.
Indeed, we need look no further than the state’s forthcoming online casino industry to watch the unprecedented money grab in progress. Brick-and-mortar casinos that wish to open their own online sites will be charged a $10 million fee to offer a full suite of gambling games (or $4 million per game type), and must pay an outrageous 54% tax on slot machine revenue.
The shortsighted approach could have the opposite intended effect, hampering both the sports betting and iGaming industries before they can get off the ground. While it is true that the state can still adjust these numbers it would require a major legislative push.
A likely result may unfortunately be that sportsbooks will need to run tighter operations and pass fees off to the gamblers, which will make legal betting less appealing than going through offshore betting, local bookmakers, or neighboring New Jersey. Hopefully this will not come to pass, but it remains a possibility that may harm the strength of the market.
How big will the PA sports betting market be?
Until last year the few legal options available led many Americans have taken their business to unregulated, offshore online sportsbooks.
In this lose-lose scenario, gamblers have risked losing their money through fraud, while the state missed out on what could be substantial tax revenue. Indeed, some estimates put the old sports betting black-market in the range of $150-$400 billion.
Pennsylvania’s legalization of sports betting is a step in the right direction, although its high taxes and fees somewhat hold the market from reaching its full potential.
At any rate, an early report by Gambling Compliance had estimated that the PA sports wagering market could be worth as much as $400 million per year (we project possibly more than 80% of that will be through online betting). This is better potential that most other states hurrying to launch sports betting.
It is still too soon to determine anything from early results, but by the end of 2018 the few casinos that had launched sportsbooks enjoyed not just a burst of revenues from wagers but also an increase in slot activity.
Sports wagering bigger than online casinos?
The opportunity for sportsbooks could very well be larger than the state’s forthcoming online casino industry.
New Jersey has a population of 9 million, and banked $245.6 million in iGaming revenue in 2017. PA boasts three million more residents than its neighbor, and could potentially rake in upwards of $350 million, still $50 million less than projected estimates for sports betting.
At this early stage, there are still too many unknowns to predict with any certainty how much revenue sports wagering will ultimately bring to the state. But with Pennsylvania’s large population of passionate sports fans, it’s clear that the industry could thrive.
Pennsylvania sports betting: FAQ
Where am I able to bet on sports in Pennsylvania?
With PASPA fully repealed, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board passed the first set of temporary regulations and started approving applications for licenses. The way was cleared for the development of the first sportsbooks which managed to open before the close 2018.
Penn National Hollywood Casino began taking bets in November of 2018, and Sugarhouse Casino and Rivers Casino followed in December. Parx Casino, the South Philly Turf Club, and Harrah’s were added in January of 2019. Valley Forge followed with a book run by DFS giant FanDuel in March of 2019.
Most of these are in the general Philadelphia area, making Rivers in Pittsburgh the only current option for the west side of the state. Additional sportsbooks are still expected, and temporary facilities will gradually be replaced with permanent ones.
Also, now that online sportsbooks are beginning to launch, Pennsylvanians have the ability to bet on games from anywhere in the state that they have a solid wireless connection to the Internet on their computer or mobile device, without needing to travel to a physical site.
What is the current legal status:
The state’s recent expanded gambling bill (HB 271) allows potentially any of the state’s 12 (soon 13) licensed slots casinos to open their own books.
According to the law:
“The board may authorize a slot machine licensee to conduct sports wagering and to operate a system of wagering associated with the conduct of sports wagering at the slot machine licensee’s licensed facility… or through an Internet-based system.”
The bill also made provision for license holders to open up temporary facilities, which helped to expedite the rollout.
Where ultimately in Pennsylvania will gamblers wager in person?
Current open locations are:
- Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course – Grantville, PA
- SugarHouse Casino – Philadelphia, PA
- Rivers Casino Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh, PA
- Parx Casino and Racing – Bensalem, PA
- South Philadelphia Turf Club – Philadelphia, PA
- Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack – Chester, PA
- FanDuel Sportsbook at Valley Forge – King of Prussia, PA
Shortly these will also be joined by:
- Presque Isle Downs – Erie, PA
Other operators can and will still make their own sportsbooks a reality, for instance Mohegan Sun has just been approved and hopes to launch a physical book in the fall, and Mount Airy may be right behind in securing a license possibly as soon as the next PGCB meeting. Also, a new Pennsylvania casino, Live! Casino and Hotel Philadelphia, is in the works and seems hopeful to offer sports betting right out of the gate.
What will the best locations probably be?
The casinos in Philadelphia (SugarHouse, Harrah’s and the soon to be completed Live!) are particularly well-positioned thanks to their proximity to the Wells Fargo Center, Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park, the state’s sports epicenter.
These operators will most likely be the biggest benefactors, especially Live! which will be only a short walking distance from the three sports venues. Fans streaming into the area on game day will be hungry to bet on their favorite teams, and could provide a big boost to the casino’s bottom line.
In Western PA, Rivers Pittsburgh is very well positioned in the population center of Pittsburgh. This gives it exclusive control over that half of the state. When Presque Isle soon opens both will still enjoy a significant territorial advantage since Erie is more than 100 miles to the north.
Gamblers in the central areas of the state may find their best option to be to wager online when that becomes available.
What this about online and/or mobile sports betting?
Players are also able to wager on sports in a much more convenient way, via online betting portals and mobile apps. The ease of betting from the comfort of home, or on-the-go through a mobile device, will likely make Internet wagering a much bigger opportunity for PA casinos.
As yet only PlaySugarHouse has launced in Pennsylvania sportsbooks, though its sister casino Rivers is expected to join it any day now.
Parx Casino launched a free-to-play sports betting site in anticipation of its real money operation. Churchill Downs (owner of the recently approved Presque Isle sports operation) has also just launched a NJ site, and FanDuel will be running a site for Valley Forge which should be extremely similar to their market-leading NJ sportsbook. All of these are candidates for potential launches soon.
Who is eligible to bet on sports in Pennsylvania?
Anyone who can currently participate in any other form of legal gambling in the state, namely all individuals who are at least 21 years of age except those who placed themselves on a self-exclusion list. For online and mobile activity the only additional requirement is registering an account with a licensed casino operator and being within the state’s physical borders.
What types of sports betting are supported?
A full range of wagers is allowed, with likely the most activity expected on single-game outcomes. The temp regulations allow, among others:
- Exchange wagering
- Money line
- Straight bets
How much sports betting revenue could be generated in the state?
Detailed analysis is still forthcoming with possible expectations varying wildly. New Jersey is hoping to see revenues of near $298 million per an estimate by Gambling Compliance. With a population 42% larger Pennsylvania could possibly see more than $420 million in the same period if it did not have such a terrible tax structure.
On the even more optimistic side of things, Nevada saw record revenues last year of nearly $249 million, with a population less than a quarter of the Keystone state. Granted the Nevada market has the advantage of many more years of experience, but with time if the sports-loving Pennsylvania avoids being hobbled by excessive taxes and fees it would not be impossible for sports wagering to someday become a billion dollar a year industry.
PA gamblers and sports fanatics finally have the ability to legally place bets on their favorite competitive events.
The next step will sportsbooks to continue establishing their betting operations, both opening additional venues as well as completing permanent facilities for those that have already started taking bets. The launch of online options has also begun, which is likely the bigger game-changing development.
PA has been eager to capture some of the revenue being sent to offshore sportsbooks. They Keystone State casinos are now offering a full menu of sports betting options. While a handful of other states might have beaten PA to the punch, a new solid sportsbook environment is quickly evolving which is hoped to thrive.
Ultimately, can the state’s casinos compete in the face of exceptionally high fees and taxes? There are no doubt throngs of Pennsylvanians starting to make sports wagers, but the financial burdens and low profit margins inherent to the industry may be too much for some to overcome, causing fears that PA lawmakers may have doomed sports wagering through overreach. This debate continues.
We will soon see if the environment proves unsustainable or else leads to an exceptionally lucrative industry.
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