Tom Kacich: Video gambling already big business
Less than a year after it became legal, state-sponsored video gaming already is a huge business in Illinois with more than $300 million wagered at 7,920 terminals last month.
Both numbers are expanding every month; in January video wagering in the state amounted to $125 million at 3,379 terminals.
No one has a good idea how big this could become.
The state gaming board still has more than 2,000 applications for video gaming pending, and each applicant can have as many as five gaming terminals. That means the amount of video gaming in Illinois could easily double over the next year.
And that's without a single video gaming terminal in Chicago where, for now, they're illegal.
Truck stops have become the most popular locations for video gambling.
In Champaign County, the top site is the Road Ranger Travel Center at Interstate 57 and Market Street. Last month it recorded nearly $715,000 wagered (with almost $3,000 going to Champaign County). In second place was American Legion Post 71 in Urbana with nearly $700,000 wagered (and about $2,600 going to the city of Urbana).
In Douglas County, the Road Ranger at Tuscola reported more than $517,000 in bets.
The top-grossing site in the state appears to be a Road Ranger in Springfield, where betting in June amounted to more than $1.2 million.
In Vermilion County, the top-grossing site was Snappers Bar & Grill at the Turtle Run Golf Club in Danville, with $529,082 wagered in June.
Which raises this question: Will video gambling supplant the demand for casino expansion in Illinois? Does the already successful video gaming in Vermilion County, with 35 terminals in Danville, 15 in Westville, five in Tilton, and 27 in rural Vermilion County, preempt the market for a long-desired Danville casino?
State Rep. Chad Hays, a longtime proponent of a casino in Danville, doesn't think so.
Nor does Tom Swoik, the executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, which is less enthusiastic about gambling expansion but still believes a casino in Danville would be appropriate.
Hays said he's not surprised by the amounts wagered by video gamblers, and he thinks the success of video gaming doesn't preclude a casino in Danville.
"If we're being honest with ourselves, many, many organizations were making those machines available to the public before this anyway. From fraternal organizations to the neighborhood bars, there were very few places that didn't have those machines already," Hays said. "The difference, obviously, is that the state wasn't getting a cut then.
"There's no more gambling going on now than was going on before. It's just all legal and above board now."
Swoik said the existing Illinois casinos "anticipated that (video gaming) would be somewhat of a treat. But from our perspective, there were thousands of these machines out there before and a lot of them were being paid off illegally. So there's been kind of a hiatus in the operation of those machines for a year or a year and half. Now that they're back in operation they're having some effect."
Swoik, whose job it is to discourage more gambling competition in Illinois, said he thinks the market "is pretty much tapped out."
"I think the estimate now is there will be between 30,000 and 40,000 (video gaming) machines, once it's all said and done. It all depends on Chicago. But I think that when you take that number of machines and add it to the number of gaming positions already out there, I think it limits the opportunity for expansion. That's one of the things we've been talking about, especially with the slots at the race tracks. And the video gaming. You're talking about something like one gaming position for every 100 people in the state of Illinois."
Still, Swoik thinks a casino in Danville makes sense.
"I think the new markets, like Danville, Waukegan, Chicago and Rockford, I don't think that will make much of a difference. I think expansion is reasonable in those areas," he said. "But when you start looking at the south suburbs, where you're so close to Joliet, and then adding slots at race tracks, that's different. I think there's still room for reasonable expansion, but I don't think there's room for everything they've been talking about with those bills that have been discussed for the past few years."
A gambling expansion bill went nowhere in the spring legislative session after a switch in the main sponsor. But supporters say they intend to raise the issue again next year.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesday and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.