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$12 billion in handle? Why Pennsylvania sports betting could be huge

by David Purdum, ESPN

Final touches are being put on legal sportsbooks at casinos and off-track betting parlors around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, two sports-crazed cities with storied bookmaking pasts.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has approved five applications for sports betting licenses. In the coming weeks and months, the state’s largest casinos — Parx, Hollywood, Harrah’s, Sugarhouse and Rivers in Pittsburgh — will begin taking sports bets over the counter and at the off-track betting facilities scattered around town. Online sports betting will follow in 2019. A new era of Pennsylvania sports betting is on tap.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was ahead of the game when it came to sports betting legalization in the U.S.

Last October, Gov. Tom Wolfe signed legislation that authorized the state’s gaming facilities to open sportsbooks, if permitted by federal law. Seven months later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 — the federal statute that had restricted regulated sports betting to primarily Nevada — and opened a path for other states to get into the bookmaking game.

Since the ruling, legal sportsbooks have opened in Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico and West Virginia. Rhode Island reportedly could be up and running by the end of the month.

The big difference between The Keystone State and those others? Pennsylvania will be the first state with franchises in each of the four major professional sports leagues to offer legal betting.

“I would say both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are very strong sports betting towns, with a lot of enthusiasts,” Greg Carlin, CEO and co-founder of Rush Street Gaming, said with the chuckle of an eager bookmaker.

Rush Street Gaming operates SugarHouse Casino in downtown Philadelphia and Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, which is located right down the street from Heinz Field, home to the Steelers.

“When the Steelers have home games, we sell a lot of beer on property,” Carlin said.

Temporary sportsbooks at SugarHouse and Rivers are waiting on final approval of their internal controls and hope to launch Dec. 1.

At Parx Casino in Northeast Philadelphia, a circular lounge in the center of the gaming floor is being converted into a temporary sportsbook that’s expected to be open next month. The main attraction — a 10,000-square-foot, Las Vegas-style sportsbook with a 160-by-11-foot, wall-to-wall video screen — is being built in the north corner of the casino, next to Liberty Bell Gastropub. It is slated to open sometime next year.

On Thursday, the sportsbook at Hollywood casino, located outside of Harrisburg, began a two-day test period and upon approval from regulators could be fully operational as early as this weekend.

The sportsbook at Harrah’s is gearing up for a January opening, and at some point, the venerable South Philadelphia Turf Club will begin taking bets and could be the most popular of them all.

South Philadelphia Turf Club is just down the street, three blocks away, from Lincoln Financial Field and Wachovia Center, homes of the beloved Eagles, Sixers, Phillies and Flyers. In preparation for an expected increase in business, Parx, the parent company of the turf club, is sinking $1 million into the facility for upgrades.

“Interest seems to be growing by the day,” Matthew Cullen, Parx senior vice president of iGaming and Sports, said.

The other reason for excitement for the gaming community? The potential size of the market.

Concerns from influential universities and professional sports leagues, a thriving black market and a gigantic tax rate never before applied to bookmakers before will all play a role in the creation of the legal Pennsylvania sports betting market. But once fully mature and with a robust online offering, it’s expected to be one of the largest in the U.S., easily surpassing Nevada, according to experts. Research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming estimates $12 billion will be wagered annually in Pennsylvania. In comparison, Nevada sportsbooks took $4.8 billion in bets in 2017.

Not everyone is excited, though.

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