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Debate over new Maryland sports gambling industry enters final stages

As the Maryland General Assembly enters its final stretch, lawmakers are still working out the details of a new sports gambling industry in the state.

A bill setting up an industry with a combination of in-person and online betting cleared the House of Delegates and is now in the hands of a Senate committee, which heard pleas Thursday from businesses that want to be included in the plans.

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Maryland voters overwhelmingly approved legalizing betting on sports during last fall’s general election.

The House of Delegates approved a bill sponsored by Speaker Adrienne A. Jones with a combination of several in-person betting licenses to be awarded to specific businesses, 10 in-person betting licenses open for applications and 15 online and mobile betting licenses that would be open for applications.

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The guaranteed in-person betting licenses would be awarded to: the state’s six casinos, the Laurel Park thoroughbred racetrack, the Maryland state fairgrounds in Timonium and Riverboat on the Potomac, an off-track betting facility on the Potomac River. The bill also allows for in-person betting at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on race days and at the Orioles’, Ravens’ and Washington Football Team’s stadiums on game days and during special events.

The state would receive 15% of the gambling proceeds in the form of a tax.

The money that comes in — expected to be in the neighborhood of $20 million a year — would go largely to public education.

After the speaker’s bill sailed through the House on a 129-10 vote earlier this month, it landed in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

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A parade of business owners and entrepreneurs appeared via video before the committee Thursday, asking senators to expand on the speaker’s bill.

Representatives from the Rod ‘N’ Reel resort in Chesapeake Beach, Bingo World in Brooklyn Park and Long Shot’s Restaurant & Bar in Frederick all asked for the chance to have a guaranteed sports betting licenses, like the casinos, tracks and stadiums.

Having in-person sports betting would be a “perfect match” to the live bingo and bingo machines at the Rod ‘N’ Reel, said owner Mary Lanham. The resort is working on a $30 million renovation and expansion.

Likewise, Victoria Clemens of Bingo World said sports betting would offer customers “a more complete, fun, festive and friendly” experience. Clemens, a partial owner, said the business saw a 40% drop in revenues after slot machines, and then table games, were legalized.

Long Shots already has off-track betting on horse races, so “providing additional sports to bet on” is a natural extension, said owner Alyse Cohen.

Bruce Bereano, lobbyist for Long Shots, said all off-track betting sites should be able to have sports betting, too. “They already are venues where wagering and betting is going on, and they should therefore be included for the maximization for sports betting in the state,” he said.

The licenses for mobile and online sports betting are particularly sought after because that’s where the money is: An estimated 80% of sports bets are placed online, rather than in person.

That trend was only solidified by the pandemic, when people were reluctant to venture to entertainment venues and preferred the “ease and confidence” of mobile betting, said Bob Greenlee with IG Acquisition Corp., a New York company with interests in “gaming and leisure.”

Some companies are asking for mobile licenses to be tied to the physical betting licenses.

Rob Garagiola, a lobbyist representing Maryland Live! Casino and Hotel, said casinos are “proven partners” to the state in generating millions in money for education. He noted that other states grant mobile sports betting licenses, also known as “skins,” to casinos.

Unlike several others who suggested having 20 or more mobile licenses, Garagiola said the state should have only a dozen of those licenses.

“It is far easier to add more skins later … than have too many skins at the start with a diluted market,” he said.

Kerry Watson, a regional vice president for MGM Resorts International, said if casinos have mobile sports betting licenses, they can attract those customers to visit casinos in person — potentially generating even more money for the state by enticing customers to gamble in multiple ways.

In New Jersey, MGM leveraged its new online sports betting platform into 150,000 additional members in its “M life” rewards program, he said.

Watson said his company is ready to get a sports gambling program going at the MGM National Harbor Casino in Prince George’s County “as soon as you will allow.”

“We can be ready to be operating before football season in the fall,” he said.

After hearing similar arguments earlier this session, the House increased the number of licenses in its bill. It’s unclear how — or whether — the Senate will make adjustments to the sports betting bill. Lawmakers are facing a deadline of April 12, the final day of their 90-day legislative session.

“We’ll get working on this bill as soon as possible,” said Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat and committee chairman.

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