A measure that would allow five of Chicago’s professional sports teams to let fans to place bets while attending home games remained stalled Monday after the apparent front-runner in the effort to build a casino in Chicago said it would kneecap the long-stalled push just as it gets off the ground.
Although Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward) hoped that Monday’s hearing could set up an up-or-down vote on his proposal to allow the Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Blackhawks and Sky to operate sportsbook operations on their home turf, the measure remains mired in legislative limbo after a combative hearing.
After the hearing, Burnett said he was “baffled” that anyone would oppose allowing Chicago’s pro teams to open sports betting lounges, as allowed by a more than 2-year-old state law, and spur economic development in the area around the pro-sports arenas during the off-season.
But other members of the Chicago City Council warned that greenlighting sports betting lounges at Wrigley Field, United Center, Wintrust Arena, Solider Field and Guaranteed Rate Field would stunt the growth of a casino-resort that city officials have long counted on to put Chicago on firm financial footing — and avoid additional property tax hikes.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot's office had no immediate comment on the proposal after Monday’s two-hour hearing. It would be unlikely for such a substantive piece of legislation would win the approval of the Chicago City Council without the backing of the mayor.
“This is one of the worst pieces of legislation that has been drafted and being presented to us as far as gaming is concerned,” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward), who blocked a hearing on the measure after it was introduced by Burnett in July.
Beale said the city should focus its efforts on selecting one of five proposals from three firms to build a casino and resort in Chicago, which is expected to ring up $200 million in revenue for the city annually. Those funds are earmarked for Chicago’s underfunded police and fire pension funds.
“This is the worst time to be talking about this,” Beale said.
Allowing sports betting lounges at Chicago’s five pro-sports arenas would have a “materially negative impact” on a casino-resort built at any of the proposed five locations, said Chicago billionaire and Rivers Casino Des Plaines operator Neil Bluhm, whose Rush Street Gaming submitted two separate bids to build a casino-resort in Chicago.
Chicago would charge venues an initial $50,000 license fee for a sports betting lounge, as well as $25,000 per year to renew that license. Independent firms could apply for licenses to operate sportsbooks at the venues for $10,000, renewable with an annual fee of $5,000.
However, Chicago would not earn a percentage of each bet placed at the sports betting lounge as it would on bets placed at a casino.
"For almost 20 years, the city has tried to get a casino,” Bluhm said. “Now when you finally can have one, why would you create several competitors when the city gets no revenue from sport betting but will receive significant taxes from the casino?"
With his close ties to Chicago’s political and economic leaders, Bluhm has long been perceived as the front-runner in the high-stakes craps game that will determine the future of Chicago’s casino.
Ald. Tom Tunney (44th Ward), the chair of the City Council’s powerful Zoning Committee, praised Bluhm as a “pillar” of Chicago’s business community.
Lightfoot attended law school at the University of Chicago with Bluhm’s daughter Leslie Bluhm, and they remain close friends.
A permanent casino could open as soon as 2025 in Chicago, although slot machines could start ringing at O’Hare and Midway airports much sooner — with tentative plans for a temporary casino also in play.
Bluhm has proposed building a casino and resort in what is now McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center — once known as the convention center’s east building — or south of the Loop on vacant land along the Chicago River set to be redeveloped by Related Midwest as The 78.
Bally’s envisions building a $1.6 billion complex at either the Chicago Tribune Publishing Center, at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street, or the McCormick Place Truck Marshaling Yard on the south side of the convention center, according to a statement from the firm.
Hard Rock International proposed building the casino and resort as part of the One Central project, which would build a mixed-use development over the Metra tracks south of Soldier Field.
However, a study performed by Nevada-based consultant Union Gaming Group LLC found that sports betting lounges in other cities have not hurt casino revenues, because 96% of all sports bets are placed online, most through mobile apps, said firm principal Grant Govertsen.
Mara Georges, who served as the city’s top lawyer under former Mayor Richard M. Daley who now represents efforts to open sports betting lounges at Wrigley Field and the United Center, said the operations would add $2 million to the city’s coffers — while not harming revenue flowing at Chicago’s casino.
The Chicago Cubs have announced plans to partner with online betting firm Draft Kings to operate a sports book at Wrigley Field. The Chicago Commission on Landmarks has approved the team’s plans to build a two-story sports betting lounge at Addison Street and Sheffield Avenue next to the iconic ballpark, pending state and city approvals.
Draft Kings is a rival to Bluhm’s Rush Street Interactive.
Georges told members of the City Council that Bluhm’s opposition to the ordinance allowing sports betting lounges at pro-sports arenas in Chicago stemmed from his desire to protect revenues earned from Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, a statement that Bluhm refuted.
Georges also warned members of the City Council that preventing Chicago’s sports teams from operating a sports betting lounge could force them to relocate, a not-so-veiled reference to the Chicago Bears, whose owners are weighing a move to Arlington Heights.