Lightfoot denies flip-flop on sports bettingFran Spielmanon November 29, 2021 at 11:01 pm

BetRivers Sportsbook, the first brick-and-mortar sportsbook approved by the Illinois Gaming Board, opens to the public at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines last March. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she would never do anything that would meaningfully compromise the casino revenue needed to shore up police and fire pension funds that are now dangerously close to insolvency.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday denied doing the flip-flop on sports betting and said there is no hard evidence that allowing sportsbooks in and around five stadiums would “cannibalize” revenue from a Chicago casino.

Lightfoot said she would never do anything that would meaningfully compromise casino revenue, which is dedicated to shore up police and fire pension funds now dangerously close to insolvency — and there is no evidence that casino revenue losses to sports betting would be severe.

Never mind the sky-is-falling scenario portrayed recently by casino magnate Neil Bluhm.

“There’s been some dire warnings that have been issued by some who … already use sportsbook at their own casinos and who are trying to kill sportsbook here in Chicago. They have not put forth any convincing evidence that … somehow it’s gonna cannibalize a casino here in Chicago. … We’ve seen zero indication that that’s the case,” Lightfoot said.

“We’ve heard … a lot of talk by people who would profit by not allowing the sports teams to have a sportsbook of their own. But talk is talk. Facts and data — that’s what I’m about.”

Lightfoot said her “first concern” is making certain a Chicago casino “generates the kind of revenues that we need to shore up” police and fire pension funds.

“I wouldn’t allow something to move forward that felt like it was gonna undermine that incredibly important opportunity,” she said.

Lightfoot noted sports betting has been legal in Illinois since the General Assembly authorized it in 2019. She expects an amended ordinance lifting the Chicago ban to be approved by the City Council at the December meeting.

Under the plan, sports betting would be authorized at Wrigley, Guaranteed Rate Field, Soldier Field, the United Center and Wintrust Arena or in a “permanent building or structure located within a five-block radius” of those stadiums.

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A lifting of Chicago’s ban on sportsbooks would allow a betting facility at or within five blocks of Wrigley Field and several other sports facilities in the city.

“Of course, there will be some impact [on a Chicago casino]. There’s never been any suggestion that it won’t impact it. The reality is, you can’t watch a sporting event now without seeing an ad for FanDuel … or DraftKings. … Sportsbook is in our DNA and blood system now in the city of Chicago and really across the country where it’s legal,” Lightfoot said.

“So, the question is, how do we manage this in a way that benefits Chicago taxpayers? That’s really the only question.”

Bluhm’s interest in blocking sports betting in Chicago is two-fold. His Rush Street Gaming company is part of two separate groups vying to build a Chicago casino. And his Des Plaines-based Rivers Casino already has a sportsbook that stands to lose business if sports betting is legalized in Chicago.

During a subject matter hearing earlier this month, Bluhm argued that lifting the city’s ban on sports betting would have a “material negative impact” on both a Chicago casino and city revenues from it — to the tune of $88 million, about 10% of the “projected gaming revenue” — regardless of which of five potential sites and development teams is picked.

“The person who gambles on sports is very likely a gambler who also bets on tables and slot machines. It’s 20% of our business. … This isn’t some hypothetical discussion,” Bluhm said.

“The bottom line is that less people will come to the Chicago casino when they can bet on sports at the stadiums, particularly at these really good, close locations [at Wrigley Field and the United Center]. That means that less sports bettors will walk around the casino and play slots and table games and less people go to the restaurants at the casino if they can also be betting sports at the same time at the stadium.”

Specifically, Bluhm argued Chicago casino revenue from slots and tables would drop by $61 million a year with stadium sports betting. The city would lose 20% of that — about $12 million. The state would lose $9 million.

“For almost 20 years, the city has tried to get a casino. Now, when you finally can have one, why would you create several competitors when the city gets no revenue from sports betting?” Bluhm said.

“What is more important — that the city have a great casino or the sports teams have a retail sports betting book? … This is not good for the city. It’s gonna cost them a lot of money.”

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