Licensing commission wading through legal requirements

Nearly six months after 20 sports betting kiosks opened at Ocean Downs Casino, mobile wagering is still not available in Maryland.

And despite a fierce push from Gov. Larry Hogan to get it up and running in time for the start of the NFL season, members of the board charged with issuing the licenses are still several weeks away from any solid action.

On June 15, Hogan issued a strongly worded letter to the Sports Wagering Application Review Commission, or SWARC, asking members to “immediately expedite and intensify” their efforts to make mobile sports wagering licenses available to Maryland business owners.

“Marylanders have grown frustrated waiting for mobile sports wagering as they have watched it become available in state after state across the country, including our neighboring jurisdictions of … Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.,” the letter said.

He asked commission members to set a firm and transparent timeline for mobile wagering at their next meeting, which was June 16; release drafts of the mobile sports wagering application and accompanying regulations; apply the same approach to mobile licenses as the commission used to expedite casino licenses last year; and approve mobile licenses on a rolling basis.

In response, SWARC Chairman Tom Brandt said during the commission’s June 16 meeting that the governor’s demands are not as easy to address as they seem.

“Maryland’s law is particularly complex,” he explained. “Unlike any other jurisdiction, there’s a significant deliberate effort to enable small businesses, minority-owned and women-owned business to have equity and participate in the new sports wagering industry.”

He said the legislation that lawmakers approved during the 2021 session includes prerequisite requirements, such as the evaluation of a study of the sports wagering industry and market to determine interest in implementing measures to assist women and minorities, evaluation of race-neutral programs or other methods to address the needs of minorities, women, and minority- and women-owned businesses seeking to participate in the industry; and adoption of regulations to implement measures if permitted by law.

Brandt said SWARC members have been working through the legal requirements and expected drafts of the preliminary regulations for applications to be ready for review at the beginning of this week. From there, he said commission members should take action at a special meeting in the next few weeks.

“Based on what we know today, I expect the SWARC applications for mobile sports wagering and additional Class B licenses to be published this summer, and for SWARC to begin applications shortly thereafter,” he said.

Hogan referenced the legal roadblocks in his letter, calling the delay in the launch of mobile sports betting “the byproduct of an overly-complex piece of legislation that was skewed to appease special interest groups and organizations.”

“The rest of the holdup lies with bureaucratic hurdles and legal obstacles placed by the Office of the Attorney General,” the letter continued. “While much work is ostensibly ‘in progress,’ SWARC has still not defined a clear pathway or timeline for mobile sports wagering implementation — it is simply inexcusable for that to be the case more than a year after the bill was signed into law.”

Maryland voters resoundingly approved both physical and online sports betting by a 2-1 margin in November 2020, and lawmakers worked out the details during the following legislative session. Months later, in early December, casinos across the state began launching physical sports betting kiosks and sportsbooks after a lengthy license review and approval process with SWARC and the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Commission.

Today, five state facilities offer sports betting. Ocean Downs was the fourth casino to add it to its gambling offerings on Dec. 17 through 20 converted kiosks. Three others — Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, Live! Casino in Hanover, and MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill — launched sports wagering the week prior. Hollywood Casino in Perryville, the fifth casino with an approved license, launched it on Dec. 23.

The legislation that passed allows for 60 online operators and 30 retail sportsbooks — including casinos, professional sports stadiums, small businesses and others — to obtain sports betting licenses.

Ocean Downs received an A-2 sports wagering license, which allows for on-site betting inside the casino building. It included a $1 million application fee and $3 million bond. Casino officials have said they also plan to pursue an online license when allowed, which requires a separate application with a $500,000 price tag.

This story appears June 24, 2022 print edition of the OC Today.

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