There’s a sports gambling economy in Decatur — people betting online and people placing wagers with local bookies.
Some of that gambling is legal, kind of. And some of it isn’t.
Decatur isn’t alone. There isn’t a town half Decatur’s size in Illinois that doesn’t have a similar economy.
There’s no great way to know how much money these economies are producing. Las Vegas takes in $2.3 billion a year on legal sports betting, but numbers on the illegal market vary wildly. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently wrote that “some estimate that nearly $400 million is illegally wagered on sports every year.”
Soon, though, betting on sports could be legal in more places. The U.S. Supreme Court's recent landmark decision in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, et al. overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA). The ruling gave each state the power to make its own laws and regulations for sports wagering.
Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey are taking bets now. Mississippi, West Virginia and Rhode Island will do so later this year.
Illinois could be adding its name to that list. Several bills involving sports betting have been introduced in Illinois, with Senate Bill 7 passed by the Senate and currently in the House Gaming Subcommittee.
SB 7 underlines the mystery of what legalized gambling in Illinois would look like. It was originally introduced just to create a casino within the borders of Chicago. The sports betting aspect of the bill has no details, just a placeholder saying that details would be added later.
What those details are haven’t been hinted at, but there could be answers in some of the other sports gambling bills that have been introduced.
There’s SB 3432, which would authorize sports gambling at only those casinos currently licensed to operate in the state; SB 3125, which would allow sports gambling only at racetracks and off-track betting facilities; and SB 2478, which would not limit sports gambling to specific locations, but instead delegate to the Illinois Gaming Board authority to declare where sports betting could legally take place.
Terry Brown of Decatur was sitting in the Forsyth Buffalo Wild Wings on Thursday watching the Cubs-Cardinals game. He’s been betting on NCAA Tournament games for several years on a website, he said. Though it’s illegal for gambling websites to be based in Illinois, the state doesn’t prosecute its residents for gambling on sites on which accounts are set up using offshore banking accounts.
“Originally I opened the account and put $300 in it, and almost immediately I got a call from my credit card notice asking me if I made a charge to a dress shop in China,” Brown said. “I said I didn’t and canceled the transaction.
“Then about an hour later I got a call from the website telling me the charge was declined. I told them it was because they said it was a charge from a Chinese dress shop, and they said, ‘Yeah, that’s us. American banks don’t like online betting, so we have to go offshore to finance it.’
“They told me I could go buy a prepaid Visa and use that, so that’s what I did.”
The Herald & Review spoke to Decatur residents who bet locally in a variety of ways, including directly through a bookie, and online using an offshore bank account, but run by someone in Decatur. According to these sources, there are four or five bookies in Decatur who can handle significant bets — $1,000 or more.
Brown doesn’t make big bets. Mostly $5 or $10 per game. In four years, from that $300 he first put in his account, he has $280.
But Brown said he would gamble on sports more frequently if it were accessible. If there were a computer screen at the bar at Buffalo Wild Wings, he’d consider using it to make a bet, he said.
He wasn’t alone. Jeremy Boleyn and Steve Frink, both of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but in Decatur working for Archer Daniels Midland Co. and hanging out at Buffalo Wild Wings, said they’d place bets if it were readily accessible.
“I make bets all the time now,” Boleyn said. “I bet on the Bears and Iowa. If there was a place I could go place a bet, or make a bet on an app on my phone, I’d do it.”
Chris Knebel of Aviston, also in Decatur working and hanging out at Buffalo Wild Wings, said he’s a sports fan, but not interested in betting — legally or illegally.
“I’m pretty conservative with my money,” Knebel said. “Unless something is a sure thing, I avoid investing my money in it.”
With November elections on the horizon, don’t look for sports betting in Illinois to be addressed before late 2018 or early 2019.
Because the details are unknown, so is the financial impact legal sports gambling could have. The illegal and offshores options will still be available. If the state tries to get too greedy with the juice — the amount of money the book makes off each bet, most commonly 10 percent — or gives less advantageous odds, bettors are going to continue with their current methods. The state could crack down on local bookies and out-of-state online betting, but it’s doubtful.
It seems inevitable the state will legalize gambling in some way. The consensus is that the less the state limits where gamblers can bet, and the more it keeps its hands out of the cookie jar, the more popular it will be — and the more the state will benefit financially.
Contact Justin Conn at (217) 421-7971. Follow him on Twitter: @jconnHR