The West Virginia Lottery appears to have given up on the prospect of an online poker launch within the first quarter of 2024 but remains hopeful for the prospects later in the year. The Lottery’s Executive Director, John Myers, told our colleagues at PlayWV as much earlier this week.
The Lottery regulates all online gambling sites in the Mountain State, which operate in partnership with its five land-based casinos. Online poker became legal in West Virginia in 2019, at the same time as online casinos. However, no operators elected to offer the product.
On its own, West Virginia’s population is likely too small to sustain a viable online poker room. A critical mass of players is needed to keep games running, as those who don’t find opponents available immediately upon logging in tend not to stick around long.
The Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement (MSIGA) solves this problem by allowing member states to share traffic. West Virginia joined MSIGA in November. At the time, the Lottery expected that this would attract at least one operator to the state within months. Now, it seems it will take a little longer.
Myers told PlayWV that the operator or operators he was speaking to “had other priorities” that had prevented them from launching in the state on time.
Basically, all I can get from them is [a launch] later this year.
West Virginia has a population of just 1.7 million, and online poker typically accounts for just over 1% of iGaming revenue in states where it is available. The West Virginia online poker market would likely be worth less than $2 million annually, even with shared traffic. All the potential operators make more than that each month—or, in some cases, each week—from their online casino products in other states.
Online Poker Sites That Could Launch in West Virginia
Regulators generally aren’t at liberty to disclose any specific company’s plans. Still, there are a limited number of operators Myers could be referring to. Each has its own reasons for potential delays.
PokerStars is the only US iGaming operator for which poker is a priority. Poker accounts for about one-third of its Pennsylvania revenue, compared to single-digit percentages for its competitors who have such a product.
Because of that, it’s typically the first to launch in new states. Moreover, it never brings its online casino to a market before it’s ready to offer poker.
That means it doesn’t currently have a presence in West Virginia, however. If it has plans for the state, the licensing, partnership, and setup processes might cause it to take longer than those who are already there.
BetMGM battles with DraftKings for the top spot in online casino revenue but has a comparatively modest presence in the online poker space.
It has typically launched its online casino product first and followed up with poker later. It took about four months to add online poker in Pennsylvania and less than three months in Michigan.
However, it hasn’t yet begun sharing traffic between other states. If it’s considering a West Virginia launch, it would likely want to time that to coincide with the introduction of its multi-state network since linking New Jersey with Michigan is undoubtedly a higher priority than adding a smaller market.
WSOP has the most recognizable brand in US live poker and the advantage of being the only operator to include Nevada in its network. It’s owned by Caesars, which is well-established as an online casino operator in the state.
The trouble for WSOP is compatibility issues between its platforms in each state. In the US, it uses software supplied by 888 Holdings. New Jersey and Nevada use an older version of the 888 platform and haven’t yet upgraded, which would be a costly and complicated process. Conversely, Pennsylvania and Michigan use a newer version but can’t link up with Nevada and New Jersey until those states upgrade.
Complicating things further is the fact that WSOP may be reconsidering its relationship with 888. When it launched a site in Canada, it chose another technology partner altogether: GGPoker.
It’s unlikely that it will launch a product in West Virginia or any other small state that would require networking to be viable until it resolves this problem.
Run It Once Poker
A fourth intriguing possibility is that Rush Street Interactive could decide to debut its as-yet-untested poker product in small markets where it doesn’t have to face any competition. Rush Street operates in West Virginia as BetRivers Casino and bought poker pro Phil Galfond’s experimental poker platform Run It Once in March 2022. Ever since, US poker players have been wondering when it will bring that product to market.
Rush Street recently took over from 888 as the technology partner for the Delaware Lottery’s iGaming monopoly. So, it has exclusive access to that market but would need additional states to link with to provide the necessary player base.
Establishing itself in Michigan or New Jersey would be challenging when PokerStars and WSOP dominate those long-running states. However, a quick start in West Virginia and exclusivity in Delaware might give it almost enough players to be viable. If it combined that with a synchronized launch in the other states, it would at least not be trying to start from zero against entrenched competition.