If Gov. Gina Raimondo gives her signature to a new Rhode Island sports betting bill, that stroke of the pen will repeal the in-person registration requirement for online sports wagering.
The change would be a timely one. The state would open up the activity at a crucial point, not only in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the return of the North American professional sports landscape.
Why the in-person mandate existed in the first place
The selling point was that in-person registration would address two concerns about online sports betting. The first was making sure underage people don’t place bets. The other was so people with compulsive gambling problems don’t find a way around other safeguards like self-exclusion lists.
There’s zero evidence that online registration for sports betting even correlates with, much less causes, a rise in either issue. Online registration happens in Indiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania largely without incident. All three of those states are much more populous than Rhode Island.
The real reason behind this mandate was a concession to the state’s two casinos. In forcing sports bettors to visit those properties, Rhode Island essentially gave the casinos a “captive audience.”
There has been little benefit to the casinos from the mandate, however. In March of this year, just 43.3% of the state’s over 23,000 sports bettors had gone to one of the Twin River casinos in the state to complete their registrations.
Last September, at the onset of the previous NFL season, retail handle amounted to just $18.9 million. Twin Rivers claimed just 17% of that total. In hindsight, all the in-person mandate likely accomplished was incentivizing bettors’ continued use of illegal channels or going out of state.
The bill on Raimondo’s desk can fix that. It couldn’t come at a better time, either.
Why Raimondo can’t sign the bill fast enough
In short, the state could use the extra tax dollars that online registration could create. Time is of the essence because of the sports calendar as well.
Major League Baseball is set to begin its 2020 season this week. The WNBA will follow that this weekend. Additionally, the NBA and NHL expect to resume their suspended seasons soon.
If all that does occur, that’s a lot of handle, and therefore tax dollars, that Rhode Island will leave on the table if residents and visitors still have to visit the casinos to register. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Dominick Ruggiero, hasn’t been bashful about the possible economic benefit.
“This is one responsible move we can make to help counter some of the revenue losses the state has experienced during the pandemic,” Ruggerio said. “Gaming and the lottery are our state’s third-largest source of revenue, and anything we can safely do to make up for some of the lost revenue helps to support public services.”
While freer access to sports betting won’t make up for the entire projected $234.6 million budget deficit the state faces, it could help. Maximizing that aid requires Raimondo’s signature, and fast.