While legalized sports betting could have a significant impact in Will County, the degree of the impact probably won’t be apparent for some time.
The law allows casinos, racetracks and sports venues that seat at least 17,000 people to apply for a sports betting license. So far, local entities eligible to acquire sports betting licenses have been loath to speak on whether they would pursue them.
Chicagoland Speedway, which has a seat capacity of 47,000, said it was not taking any immediate action to apply for a license to host sports betting. Denny Hartwig, spokesman for the Speedway, said the track’s administration wants to “sit back and monitor the situation.”
“This is so new that we’re not in a position to say we’re jumping forward,” Hartwig said.
The two casinos in Joliet were even less willing to give any clues as to what they want to do about sports betting moving forward. A spokesman for Harrah’s Casino in Joliet declined to comment, and the Hollywood Casino in Joliet failed to return multiple requests for comment.
While the two Joliet casinos weren’t saying what they had planned, one state legislator said that casinos have been worried about what a large gambling expansion would do to their bottom line. State Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, said he’d voted against previous gambling expansion bills, as casinos lobbied hard against them.
Like several Will County state legislators, McGuire voted for the gaming expansion during the spring legislative session. McGuire said in conversations with other legislators representing districts with existing casinos, he realized they felt a gaming expansion was inevitable.
McGuire said the main reason he voted for the expansion was because legislators expect it to raise the revenue to pay for vertical infrastructure funding, including for local projects. The expansion of gaming in Illinois is expected to generate $350 million, which would help projects such as the building of a new Illinois State Police District 5 facility in Will County and construction at Joliet Junior College’s City Center Campus. A series of other taxes also will contribute to vertical capital funding.
“Those are some of the building projects that I was eager to get for our district,” McGuire said.
Additionally, McGuire said the bill can be beneficial to the existing casinos. It allows for the casinos to expand their number of gaming positions. He added that, for casinos, despite a potentially high price tag upward of $10 million, it shouldn’t be too difficult to afford a sports betting license. The potential for legalized sports betting in Will County also has one other industry excited.
Jim Miller, the director of publicity and a racing analyst with Hawthorne Race Course, said he’s optimistic that legalized sports betting could significantly benefit the horse racing industry. He said there could be potential to attract some crossover fans who may want to wager on professional sports while they’re at one of Hawthorne’s tracks or off-track betting sites. Hawthorne has OTB sites in Joliet, Bolingbrook and Mokena.
Still, one skeptic, anti-gambling advocate Kathy Gilroy of Villa Park, who played a key role in the $1.59 million Morris Queen of Hearts lottery in 2017, said she doesn’t buy all of the positive reasons lawmakers gave for passing the gaming expansion.
“It’s a tsunami of gambling coming,” Gilroy said.
She said the social and financial cost of increased gambling will hurt the state far worse than added tax revenue will help it.
The Illinois Racing Board, which is a different state regulatory body than the Illinois Gaming Board, directly oversees horse racing.
Mickey Ezzo, a projects manager for the racing board, said the two bodies are working to figure out how to properly regulate racing tracks with sports betting and how the two industries would coexist. But even he said it was a “wonderful opportunity” for racing tracks.
Miller highlighted the potential, saying that now on busy weekends, Hawthorne’s sites see upward of 1,000 people coming through its doors depending on what race is happening. With the potential of adding sports betting at tracks and OTB sites, there could be a boost to the horse racing industry which, Miller said, employs about 20,000 people in Illinois.
Still, he admits that it could take some time for racetracks such as Hawthorne’s to undertake the task of applying for and getting a sports betting license.
“It’s a long process,” Miller said.