Rhode Island Senate Approves Mobile Sports Betting

Mobile sports betting could become a reality in Rhode Island after the Ocean State’s Senate voted 31-4 to move the proposal to the House late last week. Under the terms of the bill, sports fans will be able to wager on their mobile devices through the two Twin River casinos in Tiverton and Lincoln. The bill moves next to the House and if it passes there, will head to Governor Gina Raimondo’s desk for the final green light.

The bill, S-37, was introduced by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and seeks to legalize statewide mobile sports betting. Customers will need to register for an account in-person at one of the two casinos, but will be able to avoid the inconvenience of having to drive to the casino to place bets thereafter.

S-37 appears to be a fairly permissive bill aside from that. Customers will be able to bet on pro and college sports with the exception being no wagers may be placed on Rhode Island college teams.

According to the Providence Journal, Ruggerio said he hopes to get mobile sports betting up and running relatively quickly.

“And I think there is going to be a lot of people who will support online gaming because I think it will be more convenient,” he said. “I’d like to see it passed quickly so they can start implementing it and they can get revenue this fiscal year.”

If the bill becomes law, Rhode Island will not only be first New England state to legalize sports betting (June 2018), but it will also be the first in the region to legalize mobile betting.

House Version Bill in the Works

A similar version of the mobile betting bill, sponsored by Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, is making its way through the House side and is waiting to be sent to the Senate for approval. Last week, HB 5241 was held over after the House Committee on Finance requested more time to study the bill.

The bill would allow customers to wager on sports from anywhere in the state through an app or online platform under the purview of the RI Lottery. Before using the app, players will need to open an account in person at one of the casinos, while the computer servers powering the operation will need to be located at Twin River.

Opposition to RI Sports Betting Bill

One of the four senators who opposed S-7 was Providence Senator Sam Bell who argued that mobile wagering should be implemented in a competitive market place. WPRI explained Bell voiced his objection to limiting mobile betting to the two existing casinos only.

“We would be giving a monopoly on online sports gambling to an existing business, Twin River, creating a monopoly in the state of Rhode Island,” Bell said. “And this is America, we are supposed to be a free market economy where we have free market competition. Why can’t we instead set up a real online gambling market where new businesses start where we can have competition and a bunch of different companies to offer the best possible online gambling product.”

The new bill will give 51% to the state, 32% to the sports book operator and 17% to the host casino.

Senator Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket) gave another perspective to the argument. She said that while she supported the bill, she wondered whether it would face a legal challenge. Under Rhode Island legislation, any changes to the Constitution requires a voter referendum.

“I think smart minds could read the law and the requirements both ways, and because of that I do think that some day it wouldn’t surprise me if the Supreme Court weighs in.”

But Ruggerio doesn’t see it that way and said that the extension of sports betting – already a legal pastime in Rhode Island – is not really the expansion of a type of gambling permitted within the state, and therefore would not meet the definition for a referendum.  He said that it is not an expansion of sports betting; it is simply a different type of wagering.

During the hearing for Mattiello’s bill last week, a lawyer for DraftKings asked lawmakers to allow the market to support multiple vendors to operate sportsbook apps. He said that this would ensure that sports fans had several wagering options.

Further opposition was raised at the same hearing, due to fears that problem gambling could worsen if players had access to mobile gambling.

RI Mobile Betting Enjoys Strong Support

One of the strongest things going for the bill’s chances right now is it has the support of Governor Gina Raimondo. The governor has already showed her support by including revenue from mobile sports betting in Rhode Island’s last budget to the tune of $3 million.

Since November last year, Rhode Island’s doors have been open to legal sports betting and lawmakers are satisfied with its performance so far.

Ruggerio noted: “The new in-person sportsbook that opened in November has been very popular, with lines sometimes stretching out of the doors. It is an entertainment option that many Rhode Islanders enjoy, and visitors from outside the state are also flocking to our gaming facilities to place their bets on sporting events.”

“Expanding to mobile gaming would provide a convenient option for those wishing to enjoy this form of entertainment and open up the economic benefits beyond the wall of Twin River,” he added.

In December alone, RI sports betting generated some $13 million in handle and close to a million dollars in revenue.

Lawmakers also look to the sports gambling success story – New Jersey – which uses the same method of registration as the one proposed to be used in Rhode Island. The Garden State generated over 80% of its revenue from mobile last month.