Published: April 5, 2018

Illinois lawmakers weigh sports gambling, as NBA and MLB officials back the idea

Top professional sports officials told state lawmakers Tuesday that they’re open to legalizing sports betting in Illinois if the federal government allows it, but they want to ensure their leagues get a cut of the money needed to protect “the integrity of our competitions.”

Speaking to an Illinois Senate committee, NBA Senior Vice President Dan Spillane said the views of professional sports leagues have “evolved” over the past 25 years.

“The time has come for a different approach to give sports fans a safe and legal way to bet on sporting events while protecting the integrity of our competitions,” he said.

At issue is a proposed state law that would legalize betting on individual professional, amateur and college games. It would allow casinos to take sports wagers at bricks-and-mortar locations and on the internet, provided the online service is limited to Illinois residents. The state would tax the industry, but opponents say Illinois doesn’t need to add gambling options to its casinos, horse racing tracks, lottery, and video machines in bars and restaurants.

Federal law doesn’t allow sports gambling in Illinois, but some lawmakers want to explore what the industry would look like if a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned that ban. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s attempt to legalize sports betting there is before the court now.

Supporters point to the potential for millions of dollars in new tax money for the cash-strapped state. Democratic state Sen. Steve Stadelman of the Rockford area said he doesn’t think sports gambling would “be a panacea for the budget problems” in Illinois, but the state needs to be “part of the conversation."

Spillane and Bryan Seeley, Major League Baseball’s head of investigations, told lawmakers they want to make sure games stay competitive and free of corruption, saying a well-regulated legal betting framework could provide helpful information to perform their own internal investigations of league misconduct. They also want to see a so-called integrity fee from the casinos — a percentage of the wagers placed — to pay for the costs of making sure competitions remain honest.

No one from the NFL or NHL spoke at the hearing.

The gambling industry wants to capitalize on what’s long been a valuable black market industry. It contends strict state regulations and high taxes could keep legal businesses from being able to compete with illegal bookkeepers, saying they already have incentive to make sure games stay clean to preserve their own bottom line.

Will Green, an official with the American Gaming Association, said high taxes could “burden a legal sports book with unnecessary costs” and make legal businesses unable to meet the higher payouts of illegal companies that currently operate offshore.

“It will cut the legs off of legal sports betting, quite honestly, before it has the chance to walk,” he said.

Opponents say expanded gambling does more harm than the potential tax money could do good. Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, said online gambling is a “gateway” that could get kids hooked, saying children are already “bombarded with gambling ads” on social media.

Gambling industry officials estimated sports betting could net the state about $85 million annually in taxes.

Illinois is not the only state betting on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the federal ban. Similar legislation to regulate and tax sports betting has been proposed in at least a dozen states across the country, including Indiana, Missouri, California and Massachusetts. State legislatures in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Mississippi also passed laws in recent months.

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