When you go to the polls in November to vote on legalizing sports betting in Deadwood, remember: imposing another voluntary tax that’s fun to pay may be no skin off your nose, but sports betting and gambling in general are not a reliable source of public revenue, especially if a global pandemic shuts bettable events and betting venues down:
A Las Vegas sportsbook and casinos in multiple states are closing temporarily amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Wynn Las Vegas confirmed to ESPN on Friday that its sportsbook and poker room will close for an undetermined amount of time beginning Sunday. The Wynn is the first Nevada casino to shut down its sportsbook since the coronavirus caused almost all professional and collegiate sports to suspend play.
State officials in Illinois on Friday ordered casinos to suspend gambling operations for 14 days beginning Monday. Illinois launched sports betting for the first time just four days before Friday’s announcement [David Purdum, “Wynn Las Vegas Temporarily Closing Sportsbook Due to the Coronavirus,” ESPN, 2020.03.13].
Might we turn to betting on video games?
We could also see increased interest in eSports, which can be played under quarantine, or even “sports” such as virtual horse racing. These are simulated races with a random number generator that can be bet just like a traditional horse race. Virtual horse racing is currently offered at New Jersey and Pennsylvania online casinos. It’s also available at more than a dozen land-based casinos in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Reno and elsewhere.
Markets on eSports are a lot trickier to find. New Jersey sportsbooks have occasionally had odds on select eSports events, but many states don’t allow for eSports betting. DraftKings has a fantasy game for League of Legends, though [Dan Kilbridge, “As Coronavirus Shuts Down Sports, What Can You Bet On?” Bookies News, 2020.03.13].
I suppose we could take up betting on politics—20 to 1 says Sanders comes back; 2 to 1 says Trump tries to fire Fed Chairman Powell—but we already have the stock market for that kind of gambling, right?
We could meta-bet on how many tweets Il Duce and his son thumb out this week… but that game sounds rigged: if the Donalds find out about, you can bet they’ll tell Ivanka to plunk some cash on 500 and bang away.
Or we could turn coronavirus itself into a betting opportunity: perhaps we can lay odds on which country will develop the first covid-19 vaccine, or whether Canada will beat the United States to a breakthrough.
But gambling in general is still a risky revenue stream. The state can’t put a lot of chips on one number, or in this case one industry or pastime, especially one with underestimated social costs. Basing state budgets on gambling, like resorting to other “sin” taxes, allows lawmakers put off hard conversations and decisions about raising taxes on everyone in the community… and really, the common good should be funded by common effort.