Editor’s note: The following represents the view of the author.
Twelve months, 11 sportsbook launches and $3 billion in wagers later, the Virginia sports betting market is ready to evolve for its next chapter.
The delivery of the final 2021 numbers is just weeks away. However, by virtually every metric, Virginia should officially have the most successful state launch in legal US sports betting history.
But it could’ve been better. It still can be.
After all, the grand arrival of VA sports betting is all the more impressive considering the market is hobbled by a well-meaning but virtually pointless restriction affecting colleges and universities.
When it comes to Virginia’s college betting ban on in-state schools, lawmakers probably meant well. Some of them probably even felt they had no choice.
But with a year of sports betting in the books, it’s time to look ahead and right some wrongs. The Virginia sports betting market will be bigger, better and healthier because of it.
College betting ban not unique to Virginia
About half of the US states with legal sports betting have some type of college betting ban.
In Virginia specifically, bettors can’t wager on any games involving schools from Virginia. They also can’t bet on any collegiate games or events that take place in Virginia, regardless of the teams involved. VA sportsbooks are also restricted from accepting wagers on collegiate “player prop” markets.
The nation’s largest betting market, New Jersey, has such a ban (and voters recently opted not to overturn it). The potential future No. 1 market, New York, recently made its long-awaited sports betting debut. But New York, too, opted to ban wagers on in-state schools.
Of course, those markets are massive. Virginia narrowly missed setting a state record after tallying $402.6 million in wagers in November. By comparison, NJ bettors wagered three times as much during that same month: $1.26 billion.
However, New Jersey, which initially drew a lot of bettors from NY, really has just a few in-state universities of note: Rutgers and Seton Hall. So its college betting ban on in-state schools doesn’t have as much of an impact on the local market as it does here.
But in Virginia, where there are major pro teams to speak of, the ban severely limits the betting market. After all, Virginia sports bettors are banned from wagering on these NCAA Division 1 football programs from the top-level Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS):
- Liberty University
- Old Dominion University
- University of Virginia
- Virginia Tech
They also can’t wager on these D-1 football programs from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS):
- Hampton University
- James Madison University
- Norfolk State University
- University of Richmond
- Virginia Military Institute
- College of William & Mary
All of those schools, as well as these, also have D-1 basketball programs:
- George Mason University
- Longwood University
- Radford University
- Virginia Commonwealth University
College administrators understandably cautious
So, why do states even implement a college betting ban? In Virginia, for example, why are bettors prohibited from wagering on 14 in-state schools – but are free to bet on the 336 Division I basketball teams that are not in Virginia?
And if we’re really “protecting student-athletes,” what makes an out-of-state college student any different than those who are in-state? If sports betting is so inherently dangerous, shouldn’t this so-called protection extend beyond state borders?
In reality, most states have college betting bans as a way to appease voters. As lawmakers draft sports betting legislation, they needed their constituents on board. It also helps to have college administrators supporting the idea.
But overwhelmingly, college officials have been slow to support the move toward legal wagering. In addition to fears of the next point-shaving scandal, they say it’s an integrity issue. They say they’re protecting student-athletes from abuse. If those students lose a game, they argue, threats from unhappy bettors could follow.
In reality, any imaginary state lines aren’t going to stop the abuse. Such threats are rare, but they’re also just a click away.
Plus, we’ve already seen college administrators quickly dismiss any betting-related concerns when a deal is at stake. Just last month, for example, the University of Maryland signed a multi-year partnership with sports-betting operator PointsBet. As these deals become more common, expect less backlash from college leaders who are always looking for ways to bolster their budget.
Let’s get real about Virginia sports bettors
We learned a lot about Virginia sports bettors during the first year of legal wagering. Among other facts, we learned that local bettors dig basketball, both the NBA (21.5% of all wagers in 2021) and NCAA hoops (6.3%).
That college-basketball tally would undoubtedly be higher if bettors could wager on the Cavaliers, Hokies, Flames and other Virginia teams. Sure, the Washington, DC, pro teams are essentially “home” teams. But not to the degree that Virginia’s major college athletic programs are.
Additionally, the college betting ban isn’t keeping Virginians from betting on VA schools. As much as legislators, regulators, administrators and anti-gambling activists hope it does, it doesn’t. If a bettor isn’t determined to bet on VCU, VMI or JMU, they will. And they can.
If Virginia bettors live within a stone’s throw of Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland or Washington, DC, they can simply drive there to place a legal wager on VA schools. Those are betting dollars that could stay in Virginia. Yet, PlayVirginia has heard from countless bettors who regularly cross state borders to place wagers on big games they can’t bet in Virginia.
Worse yet, the college betting ban is simply forcing some bettors back to the illegal offshore market. In 2018, the US Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). Before that monumental decision that opened the sports-betting floodgates in the US, bettors outside of Las Vegas had to look elsewhere for action.
Sending money to an online sportsbook in a foreign country? Using a local bookie who has unknown ties? Phoning bets into a Vegas associate? These were common occurrences before states legalized sports betting.
And sadly, they remain go-to options for bettors who now face betting restrictions in their local market.
First step toward lifting Virginia’s college betting ban
Initially, the college betting bans were about student-athlete safety. It was flawed logic, as we’ve learned. It was more window-dressing than anything.
But it’s not too late to fix it.
Thankfully, some cooler heads have prevailed in Old Dominion. Earlier this month, Virginia Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg introduced HB 1127, which would lift the college betting ban in VA. The Senate also has a companion bill, SB 576.
As Virginia sports betting enters Year 2, these bills can’t come soon enough. A year of legal sports betting didn’t mark the downfall of Virginia society. It didn’t create an army of losing bettors who then harrassed athletes and coaches. Student-athletes weren’t shaving points and throwing games.
As we now know: A big, regulated market is the safest market. It’s the most effective way to detect and root out corruption.
Most importantly, legal sports betting has created tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue for Virginia.
Now, the only thing the booming market needs is the betting options that bettors most desire. It’s time to lift the college betting ban, give bettors what they want, and ensure the safest and healthiest Virginia sports betting market available.