W.Va. casinos eye football season to kickoff sports gambling

By Brad McElhinny, WV Metronews

CHARLESTON — Plans, rules and rooms are already taking shape for West Virginia’s dip into sports betting.

“Thirty days down the road, hopefully we’ll have the rules in place,” said John Cavacini, president of the West Virginia Gaming and Racing Association, which represents the state’s five casinos.

“By that time the tracks will have started getting construction of the capital improvements they need to get done and they’ll be well on their way.”

Cavacini gave an broad-based update this past week on MetroNews’ “Sportsline.” Casino operators had a meeting this past week at West Virginia Lottery to map out progress.

The big hope is to be up and running by the time football season kicks off. It’s not yet clear if that goal can be reached, Cavacini said.

“The NFL and college football and college basketball are the sports,” he said. “So I would expect at least in the early going if we get started that we would have some significant numbers as it relates to football, both pro and college.”

He noted that West Virginia aims to be ready for betting on-site at casinos as well as through mobile apps administered by the casinos. The gaming industry would like to have both ready to roll about the same time.

So it’s not yet clear if the football kickoff goal is achievable.

“I think it’s questionable, and the reason I say that is the mobile part of this is a significant part of the business on sports betting,” Cavacini said. “I was in a meeting this week, and it is entirely a different world as it relates to mobile apps, having those at the track, people calling in and opening accounts.

“If one of those platforms or one of those forms is ahead of the other, I would not be surprised to see, hypothetically, that the bricks and mortar and the retail side gets up first. That is not what the Lottery wants and it’s basically not what we want.”

Danielle Boyd, general counsel with West Virginia Lottery, said being ready for football season is still within striking distance.

“We have surrounded ourselves with industry expertise throughout this entire process, and, while football season may be an ambitious goal, we have had the best and brightest working in West Virginia and they continue to be part of that process,” Boyd said.

West Virginia lawmakers passed a sports betting bill this past legislative session. With a ruling in May, the U.S. Supreme Court made sports betting legal in states that didn’t already have it.

West Virginia will charge $100,000 licensing fees to the state’s casinos.

And West Virginia’s bill would set a 10 percent tax on adjusted gross receipts.

A fiscal note for the gambling bill estimates it would bring in about $5.5 million in revenue for the states its first year.

West Virginia is lined up for success, predicted Joe Asher, chief executive officer of William Hill Race and Sports Book.

Asher spoke this past week on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” His company, which operates 108 of the sports books in Las Vegas, could be involved in the West Virginia market if it is chosen as a provider by any of the state’s casinos.

Asher said West Virginians are already gambling, but they’ve been doing it off the books.

“Given the right regulatory environment, the right tax structure, I think there’s a pretty good chance of moving people into the legal market,” Asher said.

“That’s great because it’s going to lead to move tax revenue for the state, it’s going to involve much greater consumer protections. You aren’t going to have to worry about your bookie getting busted. So I’m pretty optimistic.”

Lots more work needs to be done, said Cavacini of the West Virginia Gaming and Racing Association. Some of it involves new construction and hiring.

“All of the properties are in the midst of preparing to develop, at their properties, sports books,” he said. “They have been looking at designated areas within their properties and within the buildings they have. They have had conversations with architects to identify the best areas for the sports book area.”

Staffing needs are top of mind, too.

“I know the tracks have been looking at the numbers of employees they’re going to have to hire as it relates to the beginning of the operation of sports book,” Cavacini said.

“They’re looking at the teller lines and where they’re going to place those so people can bet and the odds boards like you see in Las Vegas that will have the odds for every game that is on the line.”

As the new structures take place at the casinos, so are the rules surrounding the games. The rules are meant to ensure integrity for those placing bets, Cavacini said.

Meanwhile, the casinos are comparing notes about what they all need to do to get rolling. They each received a questionnaire, and they’re supposed to return it to Lottery by Tuesday.

“We’ve had some conversation with the lottery about some of our needs,” he said. “They’ve had conversations about some of their wants.”

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