2021 In Review: Looking Back At The 5 Biggest Stories In Illinois Gaming This Year

Written By Joe Boozell on December 29, 2021
Soldier Field

The Illinois gambling industry is booming, even if the road to get to this point has been maddening at times.

Video gaming terminals (VGTs) and sports betting in Illinois are thriving. And while there is still in-person registration for sports betting, there are reasons for optimism in 2022.

Lets’s take a look at some of the most significant stories in Illinois gaming news in 2021. Here we go.

In-person registration flip-flopping

Hopefully, this is the last year we’ll have to write this.

Illinois had online registration for the first three months of 2021. In March, the state set a then-record with $633.6 million in sports betting handle.

Then, vaccines became widely available. While that was good news for the masses, it spurred Gov. JB Pritzker to bring back in-person registration. The thinking was that people could more safely go to casinos and retail sportsbooks in order to sign up, as the Sports Wagering Act intended.

Fast-forward more than seven months, and we still have in-person account registration. However, its days are numbered.

In October, the legislature passed HB 3136, which gives March 5, 2022, as an end date for in-person registration (among other things).

So pour one out for in-person registration … if you’re one of the very, very few people who are into that sort of thing.

Betting on Illinois college teams is now legal

But you guessed it; there’s a big caveat! HB 3136 legalizes betting on Illinois college teams — in person.

The provision expires on July 1, 2023. Then, the legislature will either expand the policy to online, get rid of betting on college teams altogether or extend the in-person stipulation.

For those craving to bet on Illinois, Northwestern, Loyola Chicago, etc., on their mobile devices, it’s a step in the right direction.

To be honest, this is a big nothingburger for the vast majority of those who prefer to bet on Illinois sports betting apps. With that said, the prospects for full legalization of IL college betting in 2023 are great.

Major casino license developments

The Sports Wagering Act green-lit six new Illinois casino licenses in 2019. But it’s safe to say that the state struggled to conduct its process in a timely fashion.

Though, in 2021, we finally made some real progress. These were the major pieces of news:

  • The Illinois Gaming Board (IGB) granted Hard Rock the Rockford casino license. The temporary casino opened in the fall.
  • The IGB also awarded the Williamson County casino license to Walker’s Bluff.
  • We now know the Waukegan and south suburban casino license winners. Those are American Place Casino (Waukegan) and Wind Creek Casino Homewood/East Hazel Crest (south suburbs).
  • The city of Chicago received five casino bids: Two apiece from Bally’s and Rush Street Gaming, and one from Hard Rock.

The city also passed an ordinance that lifts the sports betting ban in Chicago.

That means Wrigley Field, Soldier Field, the United Center, etc., can open retail sportsbooks, much to the chagrin of Rush Street co-founder Neil Bluhm.

Arlington Park will be sold … to the Bears?

In early 2021, Churchill Downs announced it would sell Arlington Park, one of the most prominent horse racing tracks in the country.

That was big enough news in itself, but the story became extra juicy once we found out the Chicago Bears were interested. A few months later, the Bears signed a purchasing agreement for the land.

The deal is not yet final, but the two sides agreed to terms. The Bears ditching Soldier Field for the suburbs is a massive development.

And that’s not to mention the effect this has on the Illinois horse racing industry. Only two tracks remain in the state: Hawthorne Race Course (Stickney) and FanDuel Sportsbook & Horse Racing (Collinsville).

Collinsville is in southern Illinois, so Hawthorne operates the lone track in the Chicagoland area.

Overall Illinois sports betting dominance

Despite the nagging in-person registration policy, the Land of Lincoln had an excellent sports betting year — if you look at the numbers.

As of this writing, we still don’t have revenue reports for November and December. But in October, the Illinois sports betting market posted a whopping $840.4 million in handle, breaking its previous record by more than $200 million.

There is a real chance IL could hit $1 billion at some point in 2022, perhaps March. With online registration returning, multiple sportsbooks will launch next year.

Illinois is only behind New Jersey and Nevada on a monthly basis by sports betting handle. And with New York launching, it will be interesting to see how much that affects New Jersey numbers.

Sports betting is immensely popular here, and it makes you wonder what else could succeed in Illinois. Online casino, anyone?

Multiple bills were introduced in 2021, but none gained traction. For now, sports betting and VGTs dominate the Illinois gaming industry.

Photo by AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski
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Joe Boozell

Joe Boozell has also been a college sports writer for NCAA.com since 2015. His work has also appeared in Bleacher Report, FoxSports.com and NBA.com. Growing up, Boozell squared off against both Anthony Davis and Frank Kaminsky in the Chicagoland basketball scene ... you can imagine how that went.

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