If this is what it is like for the second round of the NCAA Tournament, they may as well not bother for bowl season come winter in Illinois.
The subdued sportsbook atmosphere while watching Illinois face Houston in the second round Sunday afternoon was everything that March Madness is not. A small turnout to exercise the ability to make a pre-game wager on a game involving the Illini leads to wondering whether such wagers over the next 15 months will have any discernible effect on sports wagering in a top-four market nationally.
How we got here
HB 3136, passed in last year’s legislative veto session and signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker in December, allowing a limited scope of wagering on in-state schools — only in-person and only pre-game and through July 1, 2023 — was an earnest attempt in trying to placate all sides of an issue that remains difficult to solve.
The backlash from not being able to wager on the 2021 second-round NCAA Tournament game between Loyola of Chicago and Illinois in the state where the two teams reside was notable, equal parts social media amplification and it being the first tournament with legal wagering available. Rep. Mike Zalewski, who is the point person in practically all sports betting-related legislation in Illinois, acknowledged the chatter in the run-up to the bill being passed.
Rep. @mjzalewski on original college betting ban for IL events:
“I, quite frankly, underestimated the blowback. I thought that people would be kind of annoyed by it, but I didn’t think it would turn into cause du jour among sports betting twitter.” @670TheScore
— Joe Ostrowski (@JoeOstrowski) October 30, 2021
The compromise among schools, sportsbooks, and legislators is an honest one, and therefore, not fully liked by anyone. In theory, it should have been easy to progress from Point A of not having wagering on Illinois schools to Point B of having wagering but no player props.
Stopping at Point B is easily defendable on both sides given the poor optics of directly impacting the lives of 18-to-22-year-olds and leaving them vulnerable to the vitriol of social media. Additionally, the NCAA as an organization is playing defense when it comes to halting the spread of sports wagering, and protecting its student-athletes is the line at which it is making its current stand.
Illinois, however, managed to find the gray sports betting purgatory between these two checkpoints. And much like how we all envision purgatory, it leaves much to be desired with little in the way of fulfillment.
Sunday scene setting at Rivers Sportsbook
In making the trip to Rivers Casino in Des Plaines via the CTA Blue line, I had genuine concern about entering the casino at 10:45 a.m. for an 11:10 a.m. tipoff for the Illinois-Houston game. Perhaps I would be forced to watch it unfold from a distance, or it would be standing room only, or there would be long lines to make wagers. None of that turned out to be the case.
There was no line to use the self-serve kiosks along the wall leading to the sportsbook area — it was nearly a 1:1 ratio of people wagering to kiosks. In the sportsbook area proper, people were there, but the groups — the three-, four-, and five-strong bunches that were so prevalent on Thursday and Friday when I was making the rounds on the north side of Chicago — were nowhere to be found.
The line at the cage? Also nonexistent. I was one of only four people, resulting in a wait of barely two minutes to make my $10 wager on Houston -3.5 at -112. I was not turning my back on the fact that I pegged the Cougars as a Final Four sleeper for the second straight year.
I grabbed a seat in the exact middle of the sportsbook viewing area about 15 minutes before tipoff, but the atmosphere was lacking a vibe. Maybe it was Illinois scraping past Chattanooga on Friday night scaring off fair-weather Illini backers, maybe it was the 11 a.m. start on a Sunday, or maybe it was the sense that the game would not be aesthetically pleasing to watch. Whatever the reason, I kept looking around for something to jolt the place into life.
Missing out on the in-game adrenaline rush
The game started and quickly settled into a defensive brand of basketball, as expected. Illinois tried to establish 7-footer Kofi Cockburn down low, Houston countered by sending double teams at him from every angle and dared Illinois to beat them from the perimeter. Houston led 4-3 after three minutes, and the thought popped into my head, I should go to the counter and bet the under.
I leaned forward in the chair to get up and then remembered, Oh yeah, no live betting on games involving in-state schools. I pulled out my smartphone in reflexive curiosity to see if the total had moved, only to recall the lines would not even appear on my phone since there is no mobile wagering on in-state schools.
I sated my curiosity by looking up the game on the Indiana — a state with no such restrictions involving in-state schools — version of BetRivers, but by that point, it felt like a lost opportunity. So I nestled into the comfortable leather chair and just … watched the game. Yes, there were some Illini faithful there offering cheers, but the atmosphere had the feel of Thursday getaway day baseball game in June rather than second-round March Madness.
A whole nine dollars richer after Houston made like a boa constrictor and squeezed the life out of Illinois for a 68-53 victory to return to the Sweet 16 for the third straight tournament, I felt squeezed in a similar sense when it came to the fun of watching the NCAA Tournament at a sportsbook.
And we’re stuck with this for another year
Thank you state of Illinois for the dumbest rule ever not letting people bet on Illinois hoops. Saved me 25k
— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) March 20, 2022
Overlooking the obvious fact that Dave Portnoy could have inconvenienced himself either weekend morning and made his way to Aurora or Joliet to make said wager with his Barstool Sportsbook brand before resuming his best life, his tweet above is not entirely wrong — especially if the process to make the wager is indeed inconvenient. And this gripe will definitely come from people other than Portnoy during college football season regardless of how Illinois, Northwestern, or any other state school performs on the gridiron.
Brick-and-mortar casinos in Illinois do not need in-state wagering options at their sportsbooks if this is how they will be offered. Sunday afternoon outside NFL season is not an ideal day to gauge casino traffic, but any bump from the Illinois-Houston game looked minimal at best. A more clear answer will come in May when the Illinois Gaming Board releases the state’s March sports betting revenue figures and year-over-year retail numbers can be dissected.
It is possible the knock-on effect is different with college football, especially with the amount of Big Ten alumni in the Chicago area. But since games involving Illinois schools are out of sight among online betting options, it seems they are largely out of mind among most Illinois bettors.