In sports, coaches of losing teams sometimes take solace in having at least put their team in a position to win. Proponents of legalizing sports betting in Ohio can certainly relate to that.
Sponsors of sports betting legislation in the state successfully drove their cause deep down the field, setting up the possibility of a winning score. Ultimately, though, their effort came up just short. And state-regulated wagering in Ohio remains illegal. For now.
Sen. John Eklund recently employed such an analogy when speaking to PlayOhio. Eklund, who reaches the end of his term and will leave the state senate in January, chose to remain positive when addressing the fact that despite a real possibility of Ohio legalizing sports betting in 2020, it didn’t quite happen.
“Sometimes a legislator’s best use is not to score a touchdown but rather to start a drive on your 10-yard line and get the ball down the field,” said Eklund. “It will be left to another squad to take it the rest of the way.”
Eklund’s optimism likely stems from the fact that legalizing sports betting in the state still has both momentum and significant support. Also, “postgame analysis” shows the sports betting bill’s failure to pass had as much or more to do with external factors than with the legislation itself.
Here are three reasons why Ohio was unable to carry a sports betting bill over the goal line in 2020.
1. The pandemic took precedence
The COVID-19 pandemic changed just about everyone’s plans during 2020, forcing many to shift their priorities in a variety of ways. Such was the case for Ohio legislators for whom issues like sports betting sometimes had to take a back seat to more pressing concerns.
The year began promisingly for sports betting in Ohio with Eklund reintroducing a bill he had previously sponsored in the Senate. Over in the House, Rep. Dave Greenspan reintroduced his bill from 2019 as well, and it received multiple committee hearings.
In May 2020, Greenspan’s bill was passed by the House Finance Committee. The next day the full House voted 83-10 in favor of the bill, making it the Senate’s turn.
Of course, by then, the pandemic was in full swing, creating unexpected crises in urgent need of immediate response. The fact that professional and collegiate sports shut down entirely during the spring months further reduced the necessity of legalizing wagering on sports right away.
“I think the time we lost to the COVID reaction was the first issue” affecting sports legislation’s fate, judged Eklund.
Ohio was not alone in this regard. The year began with several states on the cusp of legalizing sports betting. However, the pandemic forced some state lawmakers to shorten their sessions in 2020, thereby hampering the sports betting effort in many places.
Even so, during the spring, governors in both Virginia and Washington signed sports betting into law. In November, voters in Louisiana, Maryland and South Dakota approved ballot measures to legalize regulated wagering.
Back in Ohio, lawmakers continued their work, and during the latter half of the year, the state appeared among the likeliest to become the next to legalize sports betting. But an unexpected twist suddenly arose to complicate the situation.
2. A federal bribery case added unwanted complication
A major political scandal dominated headlines in Ohio during the 2020 elections. The controversy focused primarily on the state’s then-Speaker of the House Larry Householder.
Allegations centered around $60 million in payments by an Akron nuclear power company to a nonprofit organization said to be controlled by Householder in exchange for a state-funded bailout worth $1.3 billion.
On the surface, the nuclear bribery scandal had nothing to do with Ohio sports betting legislation. However, a link emerged involving a lobbyist arrested in the probe.
The lobbyist, Neil Clark, had met with Householder and some Cincinnati hotel developers in September 2019. Clark believed the developers primarily wanted help getting an amendment added to the impending sports legislation. But at the meeting, the group spent time discussing the nuclear bailout bill as well.
Clark, Householder and three others were arrested in July 2020 for their connection to the scheme. Householder immediately stepped down as House Speaker. Clark later came to believe the developers with whom they met were FBI agents who secretly recorded the meeting as a means to gather evidence regarding the nuclear company bailout. In October 2020, Clark made his suspicions public.
At the time, Eklund told PlayOhio he did not believe the nuclear bribery scandal would negatively impact the sports betting bill’s prospects. Later, though, Eklund acknowledged “the distraction caused by investigations into elected officials” might have added to the “heavy lift” faced by the bill’s proponents.
Both the scandal and the energy bill at the heart of it occupied lawmaker attention during 2020. The fact that the scandal indirectly tainted sports betting legislation didn’t help, either.
Even so, the bill still might have passed during the lame-duck session. But amid ongoing debates over details, momentum stalled.
3. Disagreements over particulars prevented last-minute passage
In September, Eklund, Greenspan and others were confident Ohio lawmakers would legalize sports betting by the end of the year. Gov. Mike DeWine was on board as well, voicing his encouragement.
Greenspan’s bill that passed the House had assigned the Ohio Lottery Commission to oversee sports betting. But after listening to Eklund and others in the Senate, Greenspan allowed a substitute bill to reassign responsibility to the Casino Control Commission.
So far so good.
Sports betting would be primarily limited to the state’s 11 casinos and racinos. Each property could also offer online wagering. Other particulars included an 8% tax rate, three online skins per casino/racino, and an initial license fee of $100,000.
Subsequent debate reduced the number of online skins per property to two. Further tweaks to the bill came before and after a mid-November Senate hearing, although the bill itself only received five minutes’ worth of discussion.
Interested parties like Penn National, DraftKings, FanDuel and iDEA Growth added their input. They suggested putting the number of skins back to three, allowing the hosting of online wagering servers at sites other than the casinos and racinos, and expanding the types of sporting events on which wagers could be placed.
By early December, the bill had undergone more changes, including scaling the number of online skins back to just one. License fees increased to $400,000 every three years. A week later, a substitute Senate bill knocked fees back down to $200,000 per three years.
Alas, the process had become disjointed. Furthermore, the Senate’s changes meaning the House would need to revisit the bill as well. But the question became moot when a new bill failed to reach the Senate floor in time for consideration before the legislative session’s end.
Causes for hope in 2021
In a sense, these three reasons why Ohio sports betting legislation did not pass in 2020 might also be considered causes for hope in 2021. In other words, it’s not just “coachspeak” to put a positive spin on the situation going forward.
New revenue source for ailing economy
The ongoing pandemic continues to impact Ohio, starting with increased cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to the disease. But COVID’s economic impact also continues and will no doubt occupy much of Ohio legislators’ attention in the new year.
Lawmakers seeking remedies no doubt already recognize sports betting as potentially providing a new revenue source for the state. Hopefully, the arrival of vaccines will help lessen the spread of the virus and reduce its many deleterious effects.
As a result, lawmakers may well have both the bandwidth and sufficient encouragement to move a sports betting bill forward.
Connection to scandal will fade
Secondly, the connection between the federal corruption case involving Householder and sports betting should not prove such an obstacle in the new legislative session.
Householder has continued to defend himself against bribery allegations and even won re-election in November. A trial still awaits, however, with some Ohio Republicans seeking options to remove him from office.
That said, Householder’s removal from the Speaker position significantly lessens his prominence and political clout. Meanwhile, the already tenuous link between the scandal and sports betting legislation should fade going forward.
Consensus is building
Finally, despite the year’s uncertain conclusion, the considerable efforts of 2020 were not in vain. They have helped build greater consensus surrounding the particulars of sports betting legislation going forward.
“I think they should introduce this same bill next year and pass it,” Eklund said.
Of course, the outgoing Eklund won’t be part of the discussion moving ahead. Neither will House bill sponsor Greenspan, who lost his re-election bid in November.
Eric Schippers, senior vice president for Penn National Gaming, which owns four casinos and racinos in the state, offered a similar sentiment when speaking to PlayOhio.
“Even though there will be new sponsors, all the education we did and conversations we had will carry over into the new year. There’s a lot of institutional knowledge now to help make the case easier going forward.”
Fans of Ohio sports teams have grown well-accustomed to the “wait ’til next year” mantra. But when it comes to legal sports betting in the Buckeye State, reaching the end zone in 2021 appears a distinct possibility.