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Cover The Spread: PA Sportsbooks, Start Your Engines

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Finally, more than a year after Pennsylvania online gambling legislation allowed for the legalization of PA sports betting, nearly six months after the US Supreme Court cleared the path for state-sanctioned wagering, the Keystone State sits on the doorstep of its own sports betting industry.

Months of speculation, criticism, and hypotheticals have led to this:

November is likely to become a landmark month in the history of Pennsylvania gambling.

Within the next few weeks, the first official wagers are expected to be placed, likely at Hollywood Casino just outside of the state capital. Another two could go live by the time the calendar flips to December. By the new year, Pennsylvania sportsbooks could indeed run four deep.

After a lengthy wait, one littered with stumbles and slow developments and attacks on state fees and taxes, PA sports betting has reached the starting blocks. This month, the industry’s sprint begins.

PGCB waiting to give approvals

During a Wednesday hearing of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB), Executive Director Kevin O’Toole was bestowed the power to green-light sports betting operations.

For the first facilities, rather than waiting for the next PGCB meeting on Nov. 28 to get the go-ahead, O’Toole can now do so at any point.

During Wednesday’s hearing, the executive director asked for the power to review cases and provide approval, noting that casinos seemed on the precipice of satisfying their respective conditions.

The decision to provide O’Toole with such control is not ground-breaking. New Jersey did the same, giving NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement director David Rebuck the same power. Even in Pennsylvania, such a decision has occurred in the past, according to PGCB spokesman Doug Harbach.

Handing O’Toole the reins, Harbach said in an email, “is a normal process we undertake to have those in authority, such as (O’Toole) and likely a couple Board members, be involved in the testing.”

“We have done this over the years for the opening of a casinos in which there have been full test nights, and when table games launched we also had test periods that were observed and those with authority ‘signed  off’ on the readiness to offer to the public. We will have similar test periods for sports wagering and expect to announce the first of those soon.”

Sports betting kicks off in November

The first petitions for sports wagering certificates were approved at the beginning of October. Two ownership groups made presentations for potential PA sports betting operations at three properties.

Parx Casino announced its intention to open its sportsbook doors by November. Its sister property, South Philadelphia Turf Club, could do the same soon after. Hollywood Casino, meanwhile, indicated only that it hoped to go live within a few months.

Now, it seems the script has flipped.

Hollywood Casino

On Wednesday William Hill US, the sports betting partner for Hollywood Casino owner Penn National Gaming, received its conditional license to operate in Pennsylvania.

Such a task proves vital for the immediate future of the incoming Hollywood Casino Sportsbook. With William Hill getting the nod, Hollywood Casino has a clear path to debuting its sports betting operation.

All that remains, essentially, are a few housekeeping items before opening the doors. Other than testing, all PGCB sign-offs, it seems, are complete.

Parx Casino

As for Parx, the casino announced its sports betting plans on Friday. While initially planning for a November launch, Parx noted that:

“Sports betting will begin on property in the next few months (date TBD pending PGCB approval) at a temporary sportsbook in the former 360 bar space.”

Likely that change of plans comes with the status of its sports betting partner, Kambi Group. One of the conditions Parx must meet before opening is Kambi having its operating license approved by the board. Per PGCB documents, the group’s status remains “pending.”

The Philadelphia casino is building a $10 million expansion project it will dub Parx Sportsbook. That area has a general timeline of opening in 2019. Additionally, per the press release, “Parx will also extend sports betting to the Parx Turf Clubs in South Philadelphia and Valley Forge soon after Parx Casino launches.”

“Parx aims to offer the absolute best of all types of legalized gaming for our current and new customers,” Senior VP of Interactive Gaming and Sports, Matthew Cullen, said in the release. “Sports betting is the next evolution of how we can achieve this goal. We will build the best sportsbook in the country — and set the industry standard for this fast growing arena.”

Then the sports betting game continues into December

The next wave of petitions for sports betting licenses occurred this week. Two Rush Street Gaming properties, one in Philly and another in Pittsburgh, tabbed Dec. 1 as launch dates for temporary sportsbooks. The third petition, by Harrah’s Philadelphia, did not provide such a timeline.

Rivers and SugarHouse

Rush Street presented its case for two licensing applications, one for Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh and the other for SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia.

Both properties will rely on Kambi to operate wagering. Rush Street does the same with its mobile sportsbook in New Jersey. As noted, Kambi’s approval has yet to come down, and its application remains listed as “pending” with the PGCB.

Rivers and Rush Street both have begun construction on their respective permanent sportsbooks. Both aim for spring 2019 openings. In the meantime, both casinos have temporary spaces lined up to potentially open by Dec. 1.

Harrah’s

While every other sports betting petition included some semblance of a timeline, Harrah’s omitted one entirely.

However, the word from Harrah’s is that both sports betting and online casino will launch in Q1 of next year, likely in around 90 days.

Fortunately, not all is lost for the Philadelphia property. In its initial application, Harrah’s indicated that it “does not intend to utilize a temporary facility for its land-based sports wagering operations or system.” Using the plans of competing sportsbooks as measuring sticks, Harrah’s facility would likely open within the first few months of the new year. It also has an existing racebook, so the project could just be a remodel as opposed to a new construction project.

While lagging behind the rest of the field, Harrah’s will have experience on its side. Owner Caesars Entertainment has two retail and one mobile sportsbook live in New Jersey, all using sports betting partner Scientific Games. Caesars also holds a presence in Mississippi and is a longtime sports betting provider in Nevada.

What about mobile PA sports betting?

So far, each petition for offering sports betting has included plans for mobile wagering. However, do not expect those platforms to hit the airwaves in the short term.

As we’ve noted, before a mobile solution launches, casinos “will need to demonstrate that their retail book is in order before it gets the go on mobile betting.”

So at least for the remainder of 2018, the only PA sports betting available will be land-based.

That said, once the new year arrives, mobile products will grab the spotlight in Pennsylvania. William Hill, as it did in New Jersey and does in Nevada, will certainly give consideration to rolling out a mobile sportsbook in 2019.

In its presentation in early October, Parx said it anticipated launching an app “complete with live in-game betting” sometime next year. The same goes for Rivers and SugarHouse, both of which said an “online solution” will become ready in early 2019.

As for Harrah’s, the Philly casino emphasized that its attention remained solely on opening its brick-and-mortar sportsbook. Mobile wagering, however, definitely has a place in the casino’s future plans.

The past year, everyone can agree, has followed a slow-developing process. Harbach, the PGCB spokesman, recognized as much. Still, Harbach told PennLive, the sprint will soon begin.

“While the movement toward these approvals may seem slow to some who are anxious to participate in sports wagering in Pennsylvania, we are moving as swiftly as possible to ensure the sportsbooks meet the same level of integrity seen in the performance of slot machines and table games in our casinos.”

About

Grant Lucas is a longtime sportswriter who has covered the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. A graduate of Linfield College in McMinnville, Grant has covered games and written features and columns surrounding prep sports, Linfield, and Oregon State athletics and the Portland Trail Blazers throughout his career.