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5 Maryland casinos approved for state’s first sports betting licenses

Five Maryland casinos have been awarded sports wagering licenses by a state gaming panel. 

The Sports Wagering Application Review Commission, commonly called SWARC, greenlighted the casinos after more than 90 minutes of debate. Some of those applicants and their partners have been on hold since early October. 

Giving major gaming players access to the market before the first Black or minority businesses filed their applications disappointed some commission members. The vote Thursday moves the state closer to legal sports wagering — perhaps as early as the end of the year.

But the vote also revealed acrimony and the serious questions some members have over ensuring equity for Black and women-owned businesses. 

“The only thing we’re asking is for, give us a little bit more time so that some of these minority- and women-owned businesses can catch up and they can start at the same starting point,” said Frank Turner, a former delegate and member of the review panel. “We don’t seem to start at the same starting point that everyone else does. Then we get left behind, just like we did with the cannabis. We got left behind.” 

Others said the panel’s hands were tied by the same law meant to ensure ownership diversity. That law designated 18 facilities for licenses because they are already licensed for gambling in Maryland. Some are licensed for sports betting in other states with regulations similar to Maryland. “Only the casinos are capable of opening sooner because they already have security systems,” said Randy Mariner, a commissioner who is also a member of the state Lottery and Gaming Control Commission. “They already have the structure in place today to function. Only the casinos.” 

The awards to Maryland Live, MGM National Harbor, Hollywood, Ocean Downs and Horseshoe casinos are subject to an additional memorandum that must be filed with the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Agency. The casinos must also pass inspections of facilities before accepting the first wagers. 

Up for grabs are as many as 100 licenses. Of those are 60 mobile licenses considered to be the most lucrative. Those mobile licenses are separate from those for so-called brick and mortar parlors. Six licenses are set aside by law for the casinos. Pimlico and Laurel race tracks would share one. Another is designated for the State Fairgrounds in Timonium. 

Licenses are reserved for stadiums used by the Orioles, Ravens and Washington NFL team. 

Four off-track betting sites have also been designated for licenses: Greenmount Station in Carroll County; Jockey Bar and Grille in Washington County; Long Shots in Frederick County; and Riverboat on the Potomac. 

Two others are set aside for Bingo World in Anne Arundel County and Rod and Reel in Calvert County. Both are the only two bingo halls in the state with at least 200 electronic bingo machines. 

In the future, the commission plans to make available as many 30 additional licenses for physical establishments. Consultants to the review panel cast doubt on the need for so many licenses for smaller businesses as well as the five dozen mobile licenses. 

Those same consultants said smaller operators would have to partner with online sports betting operations. Those partners would push betting onto mobile apps. 

On average, 95% of all sports wagers in the state will likely move online within four months of mobile wagering, according to those consultants, who cited the markets in other states. 

Sports betting has long been seen as a lucrative source of fresh revenue for Maryland as it’s been for some of its neighboring states, though some experts have downplayed how lucrative it will turn out to be. There is a 15% state tax on the revenue, which is projected to potentially total about $100 million annually once wagering is fully operational.

Gov. Larry Hogan, on Twitter, praised the commission’s vote.  

“We are pleased that the legislature’s sport wagering commission has finally acted to approve these licenses,” Hogan wrote. “Our administration will continue to work to get sports betting up and running in Maryland as quickly as possible.” 

The split 5-2 vote moves legal sports book forward in Maryland. The state could soon join neighboring states in sports wagering. Those states had a three-year head start as Maryland lawmakers repeatedly delayed action.  

Voters approved the practice in 2020. Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed the law that provides a framework for licensing. House Speaker Adrienne Jones made the bill, and ensuring that Black and other minority businesses could own licenses and have opportunities to build generational wealth, a priority. 

Issues of equity and lessons learned from the state’s medical cannabis program previously stymied the work of the review commission.  

Turner and Cassandra Stevenson broke with the majority. Both Turner and Stevenson are Black. Two other Black commissioners voted to award the license.  

Other commission members were unhappy with the initial lack of diversity. They expressed hope that the commission could level the field.  

“I personally think it would be best for the commission to be able to spend time figuring out how we’re going to get minority and female participation in the mobile side and whatever need to happen for that to be an equal playing field,” said Laura Gamble, a commissioner. To me, based on the testimony we’ve heard, that’s where the best opportunity for ownership and wealth-building for the female and minority business owner to occur. I’m not sure I can tell you right now how the commission can encourage that.” 

One opportunity could come when the state issues the more lucrative mobile licenses. There is no public timeline for those licenses, which will be competitively bid. 

Rosie Allen-Herring, another Black member of the commission, joined others in support of casino applications despite no formal plan to ensure diversity in the licenses. Delaying approval of the casino licenses until December would make little difference, she said. 

“Having everyone at an equal starting point will help even though the reality says that we’ve never been equal. We won’t become equal and one month won’t make it equal,” said Allen-Herring. “We simply want to put our efforts — at least for me — I simply want to ensure that within the confines of where we are and where we find ourselves, that we put forth the effort. the only reason I can remain on this commission is if we put forth the effort to ensure that women- and minority-owned businesses have the ability to be in the pipeline, to be considered sooner, quicker and faster.”