Nebraska gamblers will soon be able to play keno for real money on their phones, potentially anywhere paper ticket keno is available. On April 21, Governor Jim Pillen signed into law LB 775, an omnibus gambling bill that included the authorization for lottery keno operators to create an online version of their product. Players will need to be on-site at a keno parlor or associated retailer to buy their digital tickets. Even so, it’s the Sooner State’s first small step toward online gambling.
Keno lotteries became legal in Nebraska in 1986. Unlike conventional lottery tickets – available statewide at the usual assortment of supermarkets, convenience stores, and gas stations – keno’s availability is decided on a city-by-city or county-by-county basis. In the 2022 fiscal year, 182 keno games were running in the state. By law, the city or county’s share of keno income must go to “community betterment.”
Big Red Keno, the state’s leading keno operator, was among the bill’s supporters. The company’s legal counsel, Bill Harvey, testified in favor of the law, pointing out that it is still up to each city and county whether to sign off on the idea.
Will Mobile Play Help Keno Compete With Racetrack Casinos?
Lottery keno has had its ups and downs over the years. However, it suffered twofold setbacks in 2020.
First, there was the COVID-19 pandemic. As with other forms of retail gaming, forced closures and customer anxieties reduced keno activity that year. For the 2019-2020 fiscal year, gross sales dropped 7%.
Keno rebounded very strongly in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, with sales up 33%. However, a longer-term worry is that in 2020, the Nebraska public also voted to allow casino gaming at racetracks. It remains to be seen what long-term impact that will have on the popularity of keno.
That fear may be one reason keno retailers like Big Red are searching for any competitive advantage, such as mobile gaming.
Can Location-Tethered Mobile Gaming Ever Work?
Whatever impact the new option may have is likely to be minimal. For most gamblers, the main selling point of online gambling is that it removes the need to travel to play. Even in-person registration, a one-time hurdle, has proven to be enough to cripple a state’s sports betting market.
In Washington, D.C., commercial mobile sportsbooks are only allowed to take bets within two blocks of a sports venue with which they have a partnership. That, too, has proven to be a problem.
North Dakota recently signed a tribal gaming compact allowing online casino gaming and sports betting. However, it’s not clear whether the state’s gaming tribes will even take advantage of that possibility due to the requirement that any such betting must take place on tribal land. Once visitors have come that far, most would likely prefer to visit a tribal casino in person than park their car and play on their phones.
That said, because of how lottery keno works, a mobile app may represent a meaningful, if modest, upgrade for the parlors. It takes place in authorized bars and restaurants and currently requires patrons to flag down a keno writer to take down their numbers or quick-pick requests. Allowing for a mobile app to handle payments and winnings, number selection, and game entries will streamline the process. If it finds widespread adoption, it should make the game faster and more entertaining for players, reduce the operator’s staffing requirements, and maybe lead to a higher volume of play.
In the best-case scenario, it might even make Nebraska lawmakers more willing to consider other types of online gambling in future years.