What to expect now that mobile sports wagering is just days away

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State regulators approved applications from 10 mobile sports wagering companies on Wednesday. The move sets the stage for Marylanders to place legal bets on their phones for the first time, perhaps as early as next week.

The applications represented an interesting mix of the industry’s big-name players and locally-based firms. The Sports Wagering Application Review Commission (SWARC) approved all 10 unanimously, with virtually no public discussion. Applicants were the subject of rigorous examination prior to the vote, officials said.

The vote represented a key step in a time-consuming journey. The Supreme Court cleared the way for states to allow sports wagering in 2018. Maryland voters approved a referendum on the subject in 2020 and a small number of companies — mostly casinos — began accepting on-site bets on sporting events last december.

But bettors have waited eagerly for the ability to place bets at any hour of the day on their mobile devices. Applicants approved on Wednesday must undergo system testing by the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Agency. Once that occurs, they will receive the all-clear.

It’s expected that the go-ahead will come in time for the Thanksgiving Day slate of NFL games.

“Mobile will account for the bulk of the wagering from sports wagering and we’re eager to enable Maryland to enter that market,” said SWARC Chair Tom Brandt. He conceded that “it’s taken us a while to get to this point.”

Maryland has trailed other states in standing up its sports wagering industry. Because the legislature was committed to the state having a diverse set of license-holders, regulators had to conduct a study to determine what barriers-to-entry might exist for minority- and female-owned companies.

To advance those goals, several of the initial batch of applicants followed a 95/5 model, where an established sports gaming entity owns nearly all of their Maryland start-ups, with a local partner coming aboard as a minority shareholder.

It could not immediately be learned how many of the 10 initial mobile gambling companies have a minority or female owner, but Frank Turner, a former state delegate and SWARC member, said several do. Among them: Long Shot’s, a sports bar in Frederick, which is woman-owned, and Riverboat on the Potomac, in Colonial Beach, Va. (but technically a Maryland business because it sits in the Potomac River), which is minority-owned.

“Commissioners certainly made a good-faith effort to encourage people to participate in the process,” Turner said. “I think we did relatively well, considering how far we’ve come.” Lottery and Gaming is still reviewing 11 additional applications, he noted.

The operators approved by SWARC (and their operating partners) are:

  • Arundel Amusements, Inc. (Bingo World with Rush Street Interactive)
  • BetMGM Maryland Sports (MGM National Harbor)
  • Crown MD Online Gaming (DraftKings)
  • CZR Maryland Mobile Opportunity, LLC (Caesars Entertainment/Horseshoe Casino Baltimore)
  • Greenmount OTB (with PARX Interactive Maryland)
  • Long Shot’s (with BetFred)
  • Maryland Stadium Sub (FedExField, home of the NFL Washington Commanders with Fanatics)
  • PENN Maryland OSB (PENN Entertainment/Hollywood Casino Perryville)
  • PPE Maryland Mobile (Live! Casino & Hotel with FanDuel Sportsbook Maryland)
  • Riverboat on the Potomac (with PointsBet)

A challenging marketplace for smaller operators

Now that online sports betting is days away, industry analysts said Maryland can expect an onslaught of advertising and marketing efforts. Operators believe that being the first app on a gambler’s device can pay dividends down the road.

“This is the time for the operators to go through a very strong customer-acquisition period,” said Matt Schoch, senior content manager at PlayMaryland.com, an industry site. He said that the NFL caps the number of gambling ads on its telecasts, but regional sports networks do not. “That’s when it’s a little bit of a free-for-all,” he said.

Commissioners were told that many of Maryland’s applicants are extremely well capitalized, with cash holdings of a billion dollars or more in some cases. The deep-pocketed companies have distinct advantages over upstarts, Schoch said. One is their established brand-ID; another is their ability to absorb the up-front costs associated with luring customers.

Most of the big companies offer inducements — often labeled “risk-free” or “free” bets — to win newcomers. “These deals aren’t going to get better for the bettors,” Schoch said. “If you want to sign up for apps, you should do it during the launch period.” (He and other experts caution that consumers should scrutinize the fine-print on such offers.)

Some companies have drifted away from “free” bets and have begun offering three-month subscriptions to services like NBA League Pass, professional basketball’s streaming service.

According to iGamingNext.com, the top seven companies — FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM, Caesars, BetRivers, Barstool and PointsBet — control nearly 97% of the action nationwide. That doesn’t leave much room for smaller operators.

“It’s an enormous challenge. We haven’t seen a lot of a lot of those operators have success,” said Schoch. “The name-brands are getting all the action. The mid-tier to smaller brands are not getting the volume that they need.”

“Sports betting is a low-margin industry for the operators,” he added. “It’s a difficult business to run.”

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