Dreams of a pre-Super Bowl mobile sports betting launch were dashed last week in Arkansas. The Arkansas Legislative Council was originally slated to discuss mobile sports betting rules, but the discussion was delayed at the last minute, making March Madness a more viable target.
“I was disappointed,” said Carlton Saffa, the chief marketing officer at Saracen Casino Resort. “I mean, I didn’t lose any sleep over it. I’m not angry, and I’m not upset. We would’ve loved to have been able to book Super Bowl bets on the Bet Saracen app.”
That won’t happen, but Saffa hopes Arkansans will be able soon to place mobile sports wagers using his casino’s online betting platform. Arkansas currently allows retail sports betting, and Saffa believes a February or March launch of online sports betting within the state remains possible.
Go ahead and bookmark this now. 🤞 and we’ll be in the game for March basketball. Optimistic the Arkansas Legislature will give this the 👍🏻 so we can get rolling! 🏀 🎰 https://t.co/cG3nlvSdb7
— 𝐂𝐚𝐫𝐥𝐭𝐨𝐧 𝐒𝐚𝐟𝐟𝐚 (@carltontsaffa) January 29, 2022
While Arkansas legislators discuss the future of sports betting in the state, some of Arkansas’ neighboring states have moved forward with mobile. Tennessee launched mobile sports betting on Nov. 1, 2020, and Louisiana launched mobile sports betting late last month. Missouri also has made some push toward legalizing mobile sports wagering. With mobile options nearby, Arkansas casinos hope to keep local customers in-state by launching their own online betting platforms.
When might approval come in Arkansas?
For mobile sports betting to launch in Arkansas in late January like some stakeholders hoped, the Arkansas Legislative Council would have needed to discuss and approve proposed mobile sports betting rules. The council’s next meeting is scheduled in March, and it’s expected that the Arkansas Racing Commission — a part of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) — will request the rules be considered at that meeting. The racing commission unanimously approved the rules in December, and the final step before a launch of mobile sports betting is approval from a legislative body.
“There is also discussion of an alternative approval process that would allow for approval through another committee in February,” Scott Hardin, a spokesperson for the DFA, told Sports Handle via email.
As Hardin noted, when the Arkansas legislature is in session, the administrative rule review subcommittee of the joint budget committee has the authority to review and approve the rules.
Arkansas’ legislative session begins on Feb. 14 and lasts through March 15, and it’s possible the rule review subcommittee could give the go-ahead to mobile sports betting this month, well before the start of the heavily bet NCAA basketball tournament. Otherwise, the legislative council will likely take a look at the rules in mid to late March when the legislature is no longer in session.
“The options remain under discussion,” Hardin said. “With either option, the rule would be effective 10 days following the approval.”
Saffa expects Saracen to be ready to launch the Bet Saracen app as soon as it’s legally allowed to do so. The casino was preparing for a February launch in case approval of the rules came in January.
Saffa told Sports Handle he expects the rule review subcommittee to meet this month, and he’s hopeful it will give the green light to the mobile sports betting rules brought forward by the racing commission.
“I’m very much expecting [a meeting] the week of the 14th or the week of the 21st, and we’ll be there to testify in support,” Saffa said.
We’d hoped to be days away now. Other players attempting to slow down the rules authorizing mobile gaming. Optimistic it will be approved by the legislature in February for a March start. Racing Commission approved rules 7-0 in December.
— 𝐂𝐚𝐫𝐥𝐭𝐨𝐧 𝐒𝐚𝐟𝐟𝐚 (@carltontsaffa) January 29, 2022
Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort General Manager Wayne Smith told Sports Handle via email that his casino’s mobile sports betting platform will be ready later this year, although it will likely launch after Bet Saracen.
“When the rules are approved we plan to have our mobile sports platform taking wagers early third quarter 2022,” Smith said. “Our mobile wagering platform will offer the multitude of betting options found at our current sportsbook today.”
Whenever approval does come from the legislature, Arkansas bettors should expect online wagering options soon after.
Blocking out major national operators?
A proposed 51% revenue-sharing model in Arkansas left national sportsbook operators upset about the split. That rule, attached to a requirement that sportsbook operators partner with Arkansas’ existing retail casinos, could certainly be discussed in the coming weeks as major national operators like BetMGM, DraftKings, and FanDuel push back on the proposal.
Should Arkansas legislation require that the land-based casinos receive 51% of sports betting revenue, it’s easy to imagine some national operators avoiding the Arkansas market. The provision could make it challenging for a third-party operator to be profitable.
Casinos are understandably fond of the 51% revenue-sharing model. Saracen Casino and Oaklawn Casino both shared support for the rule when speaking with Sports Handle. Given their support and the previous approval of the rules by the racing commission, it might be a surprise if the revenue-sharing rule is changed in the coming weeks.
“I believe that the results speak for themselves,” Saffa said. “The commission, the subject matter experts, the directly responsible executive agency, unanimously passed these rules. I think the story would be very different if this was like a 4-3 vote, but the unanimous vote out of that commission speaks to the really no-brainer for what this is for Arkansas and policy makers in Arkansas.”
Even if changes aren’t made, there’s certainly pushback from some key stakeholders. Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association Chair Stacie Stern told Sports Handle in early January that she believed that, eventually, “people in Arkansas are going to recognize this as bad policy.”