Sometimes, the best-laid plans go wrong. Somewhere in an alternative universe, Indiana is counting the proceeds of its first nine months of legalized sports betting and rubbing its hands with glee. Expanded betting companies are welcoming new employees. State authorities are making plans about where to spend the tax revenue generated by sports betting. As we’ve seen in other states around the United States of America that have bee galvanized by the arrival of sports betting, Indiana could be preparing to move into a golden era. As we all know, and for reasons that were mostly outside of the state’s control, that isn’t the way things have worked out.
Indiana wasn’t among the early adopters of sports betting. By the time the state and its legislators had decided to cautiously welcome this exciting and new form of revenue and business into the state, places like New Hampshire and New Jersey had been accepting wagers for some time. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t have mattered. Indiana was (and still is) never likely to generate the kind of figures that New Jersey can make when it comes to betting, and the state hasn’t lost out through anyone else’s gains. Had politicians and officials known then what they know now, though, we can’t help but wonder whether they’d have moved a little faster. Sports betting has been legal in the US since 2018. Indiana didn’t decide to jump on the trend until September 2019.
Initially, everything went to plan. Some sources suggest that during the first four full months of sports betting, more than five hundred million dollars of wagers were placed. That’s an encouraging figure – especially because it’s not the peak of the mountain. Any new idea takes a while to catch on, and there are plenty of people living in Indiana for whom the reason they haven’t placed a bet on a sport yet is that they haven’t gotten around to it, or they don’t know how. Most industry experts agree that it takes around a year for revenue figures to settle. Indiana didn’t get that chance. For people to be able to bet on sports, there have to be sports available for them to bet on. We all know what happened in late February and early March, and so we all know why there were suddenly no sports. For any state that has a legal sports betting industry, that news was devastating. For Indiana, which was still finding its feet, it was dreadful.
Four strong months of trading had allowed people to draw up plans based on budgets that included revenue from sports betting. Those plans have now had to be ripped up and tossed out of the window. The additional $10m-$20m in taxes that Indiana was expecting to receive this year is now gone, along with whatever that money was earmarked to pay for. By this point now, the problem isn’t just one of lost revenue. It’s one of a market that isn’t recovering as quickly as everybody hoped that it might. The majority of sports that had been brought to a sudden and unplanned halt in the United States of America (and elsewhere in the world) are now back up and running, albeit without spectators in most cases. With the sports back, people can bet on them. Indiana’s sports betting providers had anticipated a bumper May as people looked to betting and gambling as a means of distraction, but they didn’t get one. The more optimistic voices in the local industry spoke of $200m being a reasonable revenue target for May. By the time May came to a close, the actual amount of money wagered on sporting events was a miserable $37m. The only small crumb of comfort is that the low figure was actually an increase compared to April, during which only $26m was staked.
With figures so weak, questions are bout to be asked about whether the market can recover enough to even get close to last year’s figures before the end of 2020. One possible factor is that people have lost their jobs due to the ongoing situation, and won’t gamble with money when they don’t know when or if any new money will arrive to cover their losses. Another theory is that the sports on offer aren’t sparking the imagination of the public, and that the public doesn’t engage as easily with sports when there aren’t spectators there watching them. Nobody who’s seen a live sports broadcast recently can have missed the fact that the atmosphere without a crowd is markedly different. For all the best efforts of the sportspeople and the broadcast companies, sport without spectators feels hollow and eerie, and that’s reflected by the reduced viewing figures that many sports are currently dealing with. If viewing figures are down, it logically follows that interest in betting will be down, too.
While there might be merit in either or both of those arguments, perhaps we shouldn’t ignore the possibility that Indiana’s appetite for gambling may not be as large as some people hoped it might be. It’s not one of the USA’s more liberalized gambling economies. If it were, citizens would be able to play online slots. While it might be permitted to place bets on sports online, internet-based casinos with their online slots, roulette, and poker games are strictly prohibited. That’s a stark contrast to New Jersey or Pennsylvania, for example, where Pariplay slots are hugely popular with the same audiences that enjoy sports betting. While online slots websites in general are more popular in Europe than they are in the USA, the fact that they’re not permitted under Indianan law might point to a lack of appetite among the state’s people for betting on a grand scale.
Only time will tell whether any of these assessments are correct and if they are, to what extent. Right now, though, the state and its officials are counting the cost of an industry that promised big money but is right now making very little. 2020 turned out not to be the year that sports betting made a big difference to Indiana’s bank balance. Unless the reluctance to get back to the table can be understood and explained in the near future, 2021 might not be either.