Maryland’s Legislative Session Ends With Online Casino Effort Half-Finished—What Killed It?

With the final day of the Maryland legislative session, April 8, having come and gone uneventfully, we can officially say that the online casino legalization effort is dead for this year. So, what killed it?

For all practical purposes, hope was already extinguished last week when lawmakers didn’t include online casino revenue in the state’s budget. However, a few optimists might have been holding out for a last-minute miracle—perhaps some eclipse-related astrological magic. Sadly, the eclipse’s path of totality missed the Old Line State, and so did iGaming expansion this year.

That said, Maryland online casinos came incredibly close to becoming a reality this year. The bill passed in the House thanks to the efforts of Del. Samantha Atterbeary and had a Senate champion in Sen. Ron Watson. It seems all it would have needed to get over the finish line was a sense of budgetary urgency among Watson’s fellow Senators. In the end, those most likely to be persuaded to support the bill just didn’t see the need for the revenue at this time.

What Killed the Maryland Online Casino Bill?

Budgetary apathy may have denied the 2024 Maryland online casino effort the momentum it needed to overcome its obstacles. But the obstacles themselves are the same ones we see in every state.

The legislative microcosm of online gambling expansion has its own Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: 

  • Cannibalization Concerns
  • Sour Grapes
  • Bad-Faith Research
  • Unfamiliarity

Anywhere that iGaming has a shot, those four will rear their heads without fail.

Cannibalization Concerns

States that don’t have any casino gambling to begin with aren’t amenable to jumping straight to online casinos. However, that means the same worry comes up time and again. If a state legalizes online casinos, will the retail casinos lose revenue?

The traditional answer from online casino proponents is “No.”

The usual argument is that online and retail casinos benefit each other because that’s what happened in New Jersey from 2013 to 2019. According to PlayUSA, all regulators from states that have online casinos agree on this point.

Retail casinos blend gambling with other forms of entertainment, appeal to out-of-state tourists, and have luxury trappings. Online casinos mainly offer convenience and appeal to locals. They’re different products with different audiences, yet cross-marketing can help grow the overall brand.

The reality may be somewhat more complicated, and Atlantic City’s recent struggles provide some cause for concern. But online casino opponents are interested in fear-mongering, not nuance. The cannibalization arguments one hears in 2024 are the same as those that circulated in 2012 and are no more true now than then.

Still, these myths feel intuitive and resonate emotionally. They took root with Maryland’s retail casino workers, whose union became the most substantial stumbling block for the effort.

Sour Grapes

Union fears of job loss might have been surmountable had all retail casino employers been on board with the effort. Unfortunately, two opposed the bill: Cordish Companies and Churchill Downs Inc.

What both those companies have in common is that they own retail establishments in Pennsylvania, attempted to launch their own online gambling brand in that state rather than partnering with an established operator, and failed miserably at it.

Churchill Downs pulled its TwinSpires online brand out of the sports betting and iGaming space in 2022, limiting its future operations to parimutuel race betting. Cordish Companies’ PlayLive! soldiers on, but has never held much more than 2% market share. 

Whether or not online casinos impact total retail casino revenue for a state, they do disrupt the market. Omnichannel loyalty programs are a significant selling point, so the companies that have been most successful at fishing in both ponds—MGM, Caesars, and Rush Street—benefit from a hybrid market. Those who can’t hack it in the online channel may lose ground in the brick-and-mortar race as well. That turns them into opponents of future iGaming expansion, as we see with Cordish and Churchill Downs in Maryland.

Bad-Faith Research

Worries about job losses and an uneven brick-and-mortar playing field might be addressable through negotiation. However, that would require all parties to operate on the same information.

Unfortunately, high-quality, unbiased research on the impact of online gambling doesn’t exist.

We see time and again that online gambling opponents trot out counter-arguments they should know don’t hold water. In Indiana, for instance, the infamous “poisoned” fiscal note was based on research used against online casinos in Nevada in 2012. Notably, that was before any legal online casinos existed in the US. So, the authors of that note made a conscious decision to avoid considering any real-world impacts in the US to make their argument.

Online casino proponents have not done much better. The industry repeatedly commissions the same small group of friendly research firms to produce rose-tinted assessments of iGaming’s revenue-generating potential and downplay the risks.

We saw the same dynamic play out in the Maryland Senate Budget & Taxation Committee hearing when Del. Atterbeary presented her bill. She and Michelle McGregor, an industry representative, argued that they had multiple studies confirming that online casinos wouldn’t hurt retail casino revenue or jobs in Maryland. Their main adversary, Sen. Joanne Benson, cited a different report from Morgan State University (MSU), which she said made clear that online casinos would be devastating to jobs, businesses surrounding the retail casinos, and people of color.

It’s possible to find fault with any of these documents. But the bigger problem is that no one has even read the other camp’s literature. Neither Del. Atterbeary nor McGregor had seen the MSU report, so they were unprepared to refute any of its claims. Neither did Sen. Benson seem interested in considering any of their evidence.

Unfamiliarity

The other three “Horsemen” would be defeatable if it wasn’t for the fourth. The reason fear-mongering and bad-faith data can run amok in the online casino debate is a fundamental lack of familiarity with the product on the part of the lawmakers deciding whether to regulate it.

Online gambling has been around since the tail end of the 20th century, but in legal form, in the US, it’s a novelty. Before lawmakers can wrap their heads around ideas like cannibalization, they need to get comfortable with what an online casino is and how it works.

That was a recurring theme at the iGaming NEXT industry conference in New York in March. Several attendees said similar things, whether on panels or in private conversations with Bonus—that the first reaction they get when bringing up iGaming is along the lines of: “Is that like video games?” 

Brandt Iden addressed the issue during a panel titled iGaming Expansion in the US—Where’s Next?

Iden was a Michigan lawmaker who helped push through that state’s gambling expansion package. Now, he’s VP of Government Affairs for Fanatics. He told the audience that lawmakers “came to the legislature with other priorities,” like education, health care, and other things that matter deeply to their constituents. They didn’t seek election to legalize online casinos.

He and others, like West Virginia lawmaker Shawn Fluharty, stressed the need for iGaming efforts to start with education, both with lawmakers and the general public.

Education takes time, however, and that’s why these efforts rarely succeed on the first or even second attempts. Maryland will likely get there eventually. But first, the baseline level of knowledge needs to increase enough that all parties can negotiate in good faith, assuming they’re willing to do so.

About the Author

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon is an online gambling industry analyst with nearly ten years of experience. He currently serves as Casino News Managing Editor for Bonus.com, part of the Catena Media Network. Other gambling news sites he has contributed to include PlayUSA and Online Poker Report, and his writing has been cited in The Atlantic.
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