Former NFL star Joe Theismann made history in August 2018 when he opened West Virginia’s first ever legal sportsbook in Ranson. Sports wagering had been outlawed in every state apart from Nevada due to the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, but the Supreme Court overturned that federal ban in May 2018. Three months later, the Hollywood Casino sportsbook was up and running and a brave new era was ushered in for Mountain State residents.
“This region is a hotbed of both professional sports and college athletics, and we look forward to becoming a destination for fans in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC,” said Scott Sanders, general manager at Hollywood Casino, which is part of the Penn National group. The casino is located in the state’s eastern panhandle, just a 90-minute drive from Washington D.C. and Baltimore, so it instantly became a destination venue for a huge metropolitan area. Maryland and the District of Colombia did not roll out a regulated sports wagering market after PASPA was struck down, so West Virginia has been able to benefit by attracting residents of neighbouring areas into the state.
Penn National teamed up with British betting giant William Hill to launch the sportsbook at Hollywood Casino, so bettors in the Mountain State have benefited from a wealth of expertise. William Hill was founded in 1934 and it has gone on to become one of the world’s biggest sports betting operators, with a massive presence in Nevada, and now in New Jersey and Delaware too, so it is perfectly poised to offer West Virginians a strong sportsbook full of intriguing markets and enticing lines. Yet a monopoly is never good, and that changed when the Greenbrier opened the doors to its sportsbook two weeks later.
The sportsbook there is powered by FanDuel, which is now owned by another European betting giant in Paddy Power Betfair. The Greenbrier is a private resort owned by the family of Governor Jim Justice and memberships start at $1,749 per year, so footfall is light. However, the land-based sportsbook was a minor concern for FanDuel, as online sports wagering is the real prize. West Virginia was the fifth state to introduce sports wagering – after Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey and Mississippi – but just the third to allow online and mobile sports bets, and the likes of William Hill and Paddy Power Betfair were keen to capitalize. West Virginia is a rural state and sports fans are not always close to the land-based sportsbooks, so mobile wagering makes sense. Further competition was to come from sportsbooks at the Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras casinos, both of which are owned by Delaware North.
The state charges a licensing fee of just $100,000 to sportsbook operators and it takes a 10% revenue tax. That pales in comparison to the $10 million fee and 36% tax that Pennsylvania demands, but it should encourage a healthy, competitive market, with big and small players going head-to-head in the years ahead. The state lottery commission estimated that West Virginia would generate $5.5 million through tax on sports wagering during the first year, and between $13 million and $18 million annually after that.
In March 2018, legislators in the Mountain State passed a law permitting sports betting in the event that PASPA was struck down. The Supreme Court duly delivered and Hollywood Casino was first off the mark, enjoying a virtual monopoly for the first few months. In its first four days it took $640,000 in bets, and held 50% in revenue, of which a tenth went to the state to reinvest in public services. Betting then skyrocketed when the NFL and college football seasons began. On the first day of the college football campaign, the Hollywood Casino sportsbook took $340,000 in wagers, showing how vast the potential was to be when online sports wagering was rolled out across the state.
The lottery commission quickly put together a legislative framework and brought in GeoComply to run geolocation services ensuring that only sports fans within the state boundaries are targeted by the apps and sites. “West Virginia has been very proactive in their goal to become among the first states to introduce legal online sports wagering and we are grateful for the support they have shown us in the licensing process,” said David Briggs, head of GeoComply.
It was not all plain sailing for the Mountain State, as lottery director Alan Larrick resigned on the eve of regulated sports betting’s rollout. “There is no question he has done an excellent job and he will be missed,” said Justice. “Larrick oversaw a 12% increase in instant sales, the first year over year increase in instant sales in more than a decade, and a $12 million total sales increase from the previous year, the first year over year sales increase since 2012.” Yet his staff reported being totally in the dark about it, senators grumbled about a dysfunctional agency and it certainly caused logistical problems as the sports betting framework took shape. However, teething problems are always to be expected, and the state soon had a new man in to replace Larrick.
Justice moved swiftly to appoint John Myers, who had been secretary of administration for the Justice Administration, to the key post. That steadied the ship and sports betting was soon soaring in the state. In its first six weeks, the brick and mortar sportsbook at Hollywood Casino took a $9 million handle and made a revenue of $2.3 million, handsomely bolstering the state’s coffers. The low-key activity at the FanDuel book at the Greenbrier pushed the handle over the $10 million mark, showing a huge appetite for regulated sports wagering among West Virginians.
You can expect many more stories about the legal sports betting industry in the Mountain State as it grows in popularity with the advent of mobile sports wagering. The sports leagues are calling for a cut of the revenue, but the lottery commission has thus far rejected their pleas. That is just one of many stories that looks set to rumble on in this burgeoning and fascinating industry in the months and years ahead.