When discussing further gaming expansion in Illinois, the iconic names of Chicago sports teams and venues are freely thrown about in the third-largest U.S. city that is also part of the third-largest sports betting market in the country.
That includes the Cubs and DraftKings at Wrigley Field. And the Bears and BetRivers, be it at Soldier Field or perhaps Arlington Heights down the road. While neither the White Sox nor the Bulls have any formal ties to a gaming operator, there have been rumors FanDuel will build a sportsbook at the United Center where the Bulls play their home games.
The most direct path for teams to obtain a sports wagering license in the gaming expansion bill Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law in June 2019 is one issued to a sports facility. The team or teams, as in the case of the United Center since the Blackhawks also play there, then provide written authorization to allow sports betting at the facility.
In SB 690, the term “sports facility” is defined as a “facility that hosts sports events and holds a seating capacity greater than 17,000 persons.” In the city of Chicago, that includes the aforementioned Wrigley Field, Soldier Field, and United Center as well as Guaranteed Rate Field where the White Sox play. It extends to Allstate Arena in Rosemont and Seat Geek Stadium in Bridgeview, current home of the Red Stars of the NWSL and former home of the Fire, who have since moved to Soldier Field.
But the team that is currently the talk of the city — the recently crowned WNBA champion Chicago Sky — is on the outside looking in to even start the process, and owner Michael Alter is trying to change that.
Seeking a seat at the table
Governor Pritzker joins the Illinois House of Representatives to honor the Chicago Sky Organization for winning the national WNBA Championship. https://t.co/QhwC6YIndZ
— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) October 26, 2021
“We’ve been trying to get the license all the other sports teams have the opportunity to get,” Alter explained to Sports Handle in a phone interview. “We were excluded from the original bill, and no one has an answer for that other than ‘It was a mistake.’ We’ve been working with our legislative leaders to try and make that happen.”
A bill that could move forward during this week’s General Assembly veto session, SB 521, would make Wintrust Arena eligible to apply for a sports wagering license as a facility. It is part of a bigger package of sports betting-related amendments that passed easily through the House in June and await Senate concurrence.
Alter’s co-owner visited the state capital on Tuesday, with Pritzker and both chambers of government in Springfield praising the franchise for winning its first WNBA title in franchise history.
Still, Alter has contingencies should there be no movement on SB 521. State Sen. Mattie Hunter this month filed SB 2913, which contained near-identical language to Rep. Lamont Robinson’s bill introduced in July 2020 that would permit a “professional women’s sports team that has been in existence at least 10 years or its designee to apply to the Illinois Gaming Board to be issued a master sports wagering license.” Robinson’s bill never fully progressed in the previous General Assembly.
“We don’t know what is going to happen … and we want the opportunity to have our own bill on the table,” Alter said about the impetus for Hunter’s bill. “We can have our own bill independently of the larger bill, and we wanted to have something teed up and ready to go.”
Though there is not enough time for Hunter’s bill to make its way through the legislative process this week — the veto session ends Thursday — filing it now offers the potential to have it taken up during normally scheduled legislative sessions in 2022. Additionally, Hunter’s status as the Senate Executive Committee vice-chair for gaming could provide the muscle to prevent a stalling in Springfield.
“The language [in SB 521] did not address the Sky,” Alter added. “[It’s] not language we really wanted, but if the House and the Senate pass it, we’ll work with it. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. We don’t think it’s appropriate for the Sky, it’s a repetition of the original problem.
“We don’t own our arena like the United Center or have long-term control like the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. We’ve been in three arenas, and while we love being at Wintrust, someday we may want our own arena.”
Deals with operators could be financial lifelines
KAHLEAH COPPER 😤
📺 ESPN pic.twitter.com/FL5PjHRucS
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 17, 2021
The Sky were not immune to the financial challenges the COVID-19 pandemic created. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in February the team lost 40% of its revenue playing the 2020 season without fans and that some sponsorship deals had to be reworked. The run to the title provided a boost with five postseason home games, with Games 3 and 4 against Phoenix in the finals both sellouts.
The Mercury are currently the only other WNBA team that has partnered with a sportsbook, Bally Sports in Arizona. Alter feels a similar deal for the Sky could contribute to his franchise also being a successful business.
“It’s much more important to us for long-term sustainability,” he said. “Our revenue is a fraction of [NBA teams’]. For them, it’s incremental income and they’re thrilled to be doing it. For us as a women’s team … this is significant. You can pay the women a lot more money, and they deserve to be paid. It’s meaningful to us, above and beyond what It is for the men.”
The WNBA, like the NBA, has proceeded cautiously in the sports betting arena while making efforts to broaden its fan base. Partnerships that include the title of “Authorized Sports Betting Operator” with sportsbooks have both commercial and integrity aspects that must work in tandem to be successful.
Alter has noted the uncertainty around the ability to apply for a sports wagering license presents a challenge in finding potential sportsbook operators as suitors, with few discussions advancing beyond “very preliminary conversations.” He added Illinois is “not on the favorite list [for national sportsbooks] with an environment of regulatory costs and restrictions.”
The Sky owner, though, hopes the “ayes will have it” at some point in Springfield to obtain the opportunity to apply for a sports betting license.
“It’s a very helpful tool to have for revenue. For us, it’s more impactful, it’s not incremental for us,” Alter said. “As a percentage, it will be more impactful to allow us to grow the game. We don’t need it — we’ve been around 25 years without it — but it’s a great thing we can benefit from proportionately.”