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Illinois bench celebrates a three point basket in a NCAA basketball game at State Farm Center in Champaign on Saturday, February 6, 2021.

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URBANA — If you want to bet on the Illini during the NCAA tournament, you’ll have to travel to Indiana to do so.

While betting on college sports is legal in Illinois, it’s not legal to do so on colleges based in Illinois.

So if you’re in Indianapolis for the tournament, you can bet on whether the Illini will score first, but you can’t while watching from your couch.

It’s a restriction Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman lobbied for when sports betting was legalized in 2019, and one state Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, would like to get rid of.

The UI grad introduced a bill earlier this month that would remove the prohibition, which he called “an odd idiosyncrasy in the law.”

Bettors “could simply go to Indiana or Iowa or, if Missouri eventually legalized it, go down to Missouri or Tennessee and place a similar bet, with really no difference in those two outcomes,” Zalewski said.

So far, he’s lined up the support of fellow Democratic Reps. Jonathan Carroll of Northbrook and Kam Buckner of Chicago.

“I truly believe that the way the current law is written does very little to protect our student-athletes from those bettors who may be enticed to either cross state lines to place bets or worse yet, do so through the unregulated market,” said Buckner, who played college football at Illinois. “We have already seen the propensity of folks who want to wager on college sports go to places like Indiana, and I expect for that to not only continue but to increase.”

And, he said, if athletes are tempted to bet on themselves, perhaps the NCAA should allow them to be better compensated.

“If we are truly concerned about compensation for these young women and men who provide a steady and consequential revenue source to these institutions and the billion-dollar nonprofit that is the NCAA, we should have a real conversation about changing that,” Buckner said.

A pending NCAA rule would allow college athletes to earn money from their “name, image or likeness.”

UI athletics: ‘Still opposed’

Zalewski hasn’t lined up perhaps the most influential stakeholder in the debate: Whitman.

“We are still opposed to the bill that would allow betting on Illinois collegiate sport teams, primarily because this allows even more, and unwanted, pressure on college-age student-athletes,” UI athletics spokesman Kent Brown said. “There are numerous examples of specific student-athletes being targeted when a point-spread wasn’t covered because of a play or shot or performance in a game. Some of the social posts can get very ugly when people have direct access to communicate with student-athletes.”

Additionally, “on a college campus of more than 50,000 students, the ability to place wagers on events involving a roommate, classmate, friend of a friend, etc., puts a premium on what could be ‘inside information’ regarding injuries or availability of players,” Brown said.

While someone could travel out of state to bet on the Illini, Brown said, “at least someone would really have to make that effort if it was that important to them. There seems to be many opportunities to place a legal wager without making that effort.”

He also said sports betting appears to be doing just fine in Illinois without the state schools included.

Zalewski said he had “a very open and honest dialogue” with Whitman earlier this year, but didn’t change his mind, adding: “He raised very good, substantive points about it.”

Zalewski said the most compelling argument against betting on in-state schools is “that the student-athletes will be subject to online harassment.”

“That’s something that we need to be cautious of,” he said.

‘Good, robust marketplace’

Zalewski hopes to hold a hearing on the bill, but doesn’t know what the odds of it passing are.

“I don’t have any sense of whether I can come to some sort of accord with Josh Whitman,” he said. “I very much don’t want to do this over his objection, but also remain convinced that what we have in place right now doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

While Zalewski said removing the restriction would produce more revenue, he agreed that the existing sports betting program in Illinois has been financially successful.

“We have a really good, robust marketplace,” he said. “I’m excited about the number of operators that have participated. I’m excited that it’s producing substantial amounts of revenue.”

When sports betting went live in Illinois last March, bettors had to register in person at a casino.

That restriction has been removed during the pandemic, so betting online can now be done entirely from a smartphone app, which uses location to ensure a bet is placed in-state.

Through the end of 2020, more than 52.5 million sports bets were made in Illinois, wagering nearly $1.9 billion.

‘More butts in the seats’Of that, more than 95 percent was wagered online, according to Illinois Gaming Board data. About $1.5 billion was wagered on professional sports and $379.6 million on college sports.

On Super Bowl Sunday, $45.6 million was wagered, leading to $1.1 million in state tax revenue, IGB announced.

Ivan Fernandez, the executive director for the Illinois Gaming Machine Operators Association, said video gaming brought in about that much every day and said his organization would still like to see in-game sports betting limited to geofences around establishments that already have video-gambling machines.

Sports betting is “doing well, but not compared to what we do every single day that we operate,” he said, though he acknowledged it would be difficult to add a restriction on sports betting now that it’s already operating.

Eric Meyer, the co-owner of Bentley’s and Pia’s bars in Champaign, also advocated for in-game betting restricted to video-gaming-licensed establishments.

“It’s more butts in the seats. People tend to come to an establishment to watch a game and are more apt to maybe stay a little longer because they’re interested in the game,” he said. “They can participate and play whether their team’s winning or losing.”

As for betting on the Illini, Meyer said it might be good for him personally that it’s not currently allowed.

While not much of a bettor himself, “that’s probably the one thing I’d want to bet on, and I think my heart would bet foolishly,” Meyer said.


Ben Zigterman is a reporter covering business at The News-Gazette. His email is bzigterman@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@bzigterman).

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