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Arkansas Racing Commission will consider legalizing mobile sports betting

by Rachel Herzog | November 13, 2021 at 5:08 a.m.
A mobile sports betting app for football games is displayed at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Las Vegas in this Sept. 5, 2019, file photo. (AP/John Locher)

The Arkansas Racing Commission plans to consider a rule change that would legalize mobile sports betting in the state, a spokesman confirmed Friday.

Under Amendment 100, the constitutional change Arkansas voters approved in 2018, casinos are allowed to offer sports betting on-premises. The proposed rule change, a draft of which will be presented to the commission Thursday, would allow Arkansans to place sports bets via a mobile app from any location in the state, Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin said.

If the rule change proceeds, officials expect the full approval process -- which includes a 30-day public comment period, a formal vote by the commission and legislative committee approval -- to be complete in late January or early February, meaning Arkansans could be placing mobile sports wagers by February.

Hardin said sports books have operated successfully at each of the state's three operating casinos, and Arkansans have expressed an interest in the possibility of mobile wagers.

"When the rules were drafted, it limited sports betting to physically on-site casino property. Offering mobile immediately seemed like a large step," he said. "This seems like the time to make the move."

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibited commercial sports betting in most states. Since then, 32 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized sports betting, according to the American Gaming Association. Nineteen of those states, including Mississippi and Tennessee, allow online or mobile sports betting.

News that the commission would consider the rule change was first reported by Gambling.com.

There are three casinos currently operating in Arkansas: Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis and Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs. The Racing Commission voted Friday to award a fourth license for Legends Resort and Casino in Pope County.

Hardin said officials anticipate that the new rule will allow those casinos to either create a mobile application for sports betting in-house or outsource it to a third party. Such an app would use technology to ensure that only people legally able to gamble in the state -- adults age 21 and older -- can place bets.

He said the department didn't have a revenue estimate for legalizing mobile betting.

Carlton Saffa, Saracen's chief market officer, said the casino is supportive of legalizing mobile sports betting because of consumer demand.

"Our patrons wanted crab legs on our buffet, so we made it happen. And our patrons want to bet on sports on their phones, so we're hopeful that the state would allow that to happen," he said. "This has long been something that we are regularly asked about."

While allowing mobile sports bets might mean some people aren't visiting the casino in person and partaking in the amenities it offers, Saffa said it was logical to make the casino's sports-betting offerings more accessible as a way to grow business.

He also noted the sports-betting demographic skews toward a younger patron who is more likely to go through a mobile device, and that illegal or quasi-legal sports betting is already taking place on mobile applications that are based in other countries.

"This would bring this to Arkansas in a way where Arkansas could get a fair share of tax revenue," he said.

Still, he said, slot machines would always be the casino's core business.

Oaklawn has an app that allows bettors to place wagers solely on live racing, Oaklawn Anywhere.

Jerry Cox, of the conservative education and research group Arkansas Family Council, which has always opposed the expansion of gambling in the state, said making sports betting more accessible via a mobile phone app would add to the problem of gambling addiction.

"Anytime you expand the availability of gambling you run the serious risk of contributing to gambling addiction, which is a problem not just in Arkansas but across the nation," Cox, the organization's founder and president, said. "You're going to see a lot more people lose their hard-earned money by gambling."

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson through a spokeswoman declined to comment Friday on the proposed rule change. A September article from Casino.org reported that Hutchinson said he could support mobile wagering.

Since the first sports bet was placed in Arkansas in July 2019, sports bettors have wagered $86 million at the three casinos, resulting in $74 million in payouts and roughly $12 million in state revenue, according to Hardin. That comprises a relatively small portion of the casinos' business, with hundreds of millions of dollars being wagered across the board, he said.

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