By backing stadium sports betting, Lightfoot is needlessly gambling with city’s casino bidCST Editorial Boardon November 18, 2021 at 2:19 am

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to support sports betting facilities possibly jeopardizes the city’s bid to mount a casino. | Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

Chicago has waited a generation for a casino to help fix its economic woes. Now, the mayor needlessly muddies the waters by supporting another operation aimed at bettors.

The city had something close to a sure thing going: five casino proposals — each with its own strengths — carrying the promise of generating $200 million a year in tax revenue to go toward solving Chicago’s underfunded pensions.

All the city had to do next was to weigh the merits of each proposal, conduct some real due diligence, select a winner — and not jinx itself in the process.

But Chicago being Chicago, it looks as if it’s instead going for the jinx.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who wants a casino, voiced her support Wednesday for a separate ordinance to allow the Chicago Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Blackhawks and Sky to operate sports betting operations at their stadiums.

“As you know, there were some that believed that the betting will be a drain on casino revenues in a disproportional way,” Lightfoot told reporters. “Of course it’s going to have an impact, but I don’t think it’s going to be materially a problem. So I do support that.”

See the jinx? The city has waited a generation for a casino to help fix its economic woes. And before a site is picked — before we know if a Chicago casino can even generate the revenue the proposed operators are promising — Lightfoot needlessly muddies the waters by supporting another competing operation aimed at bettors.

Making matters worse: While Chicago is slated to get millions of dollars in yearly revenue from a casino operation, the city’s guaranteed cut from the sports betting is relegated to just a $50,000 operation license per site and a $25,000 annual renewal fee.

This makes no sense to us, at all.

‘Worst piece of legislation’

Sports betting operations became legal in Illinois in 2019, though they remain banned under Chicago’s “home rule” powers.

Lightfoot supports a proposed ordinance by Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) that would lift the ban and allow sports betting at Wrigley Field, the United Center, Guaranteed Rate Field, Soldier Field and Wintrust Arena.

The ordinance would also allow sports betting in a permanent building or structure within five blocks of each site.

“In my community, it’ll bring more people to the United Center,” Burnett said last July. “They may spend more money. It helps with the sales tax and also the amusement [tax] that these guys pay. So there is some upside. … There’s more benefits for the state, but there’s some auxiliary benefits for the city.”

But the planned ordinance hit a buzzsaw earlier this month when it was brought before an informational hearing in front of the City Council zoning and license committees.

Among opponents at the hearing was Neil Bluhm, the mega-developer behind casino proposals at the McCormick Place east building and The 78 development that’ll be going up along the Chicago River just south of Roosevelt Road.

But there were aldermen cool to the idea as well.

“This is one of the worst pieces of legislation that has been drafted and presented to us as far as gaming is concerned,” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who said the city should instead concentrate on bringing a successful casino to fruition.

He’s right.

More time and thought needed

Back in 2019, Lightfoot strongly opposed sports betting in stadiums here, saying, “Such a proposal has the potential to undermine the viability of any Chicago-based casino through the diversion of customers and revenue from a casino.”

We don’t know why the mayor changed her mind. But we do know this: Chicago desperately needs casino tax revenue. Gambling revenue won’t solve the city’s financial problems entirely, but every dollar the city could potentially lose by shifting sports bettors to stadium sites instead of casinos is another dollar that will eventually have to come out of Chicago taxpayers’ wallets.

Lightfoot said Burnett’s sports betting ordinance might include some amendments by the time it’s scheduled to be heard in committee in early December. She said the measure could come up for a full City Council vote before the end of December.

The mayor had no details on what the tinkering could include, but with so much at stake, those details better be forthcoming soon — and be to the city’s benefit.

For example, even if the sports betting sites did not substantially cut into casino gambling, we see no benefit to a proposal that doesn’t give the city a piece of the action from the wagers placed at those sports betting facilities. If Chicago is to profit substantially from gaming in order to ease its economic woes, then all forms of legalized gaming sanctioned by the city must be fair game.

We also don’t like that in addition to the sports teams, independent operators can get licenses to open betting venues nearby for only $10,000 — with a $5,000 renewal fee.

Instead of rushing through an ordinance by December, Lightfoot should push back from the table, let the casino proposal develop — and put stadium sports betting on the back burner.

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