After canceling its October meeting without explanation, a state commission is poised to consider sportsbook applications from as many as five Maryland casinos.
The Sports Wagering Application Review Commission (SWARC) is scheduled to meet Wednesday for the first time since September.
The Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Commission determined in October that five of the state’s casinos meet the legal standards to take wagers on professional and collegiate contests.
Those applications — OK’d under an “alternative licensing standard” — were then forwarded to the SWARC.
The alternate licensing provision permits the state to issue temporary licenses to companies whose operations have already been vetted here or where they have been cleared in a state with regulations similar to Maryland’s.
The agenda for Wednesday’s SWARC meeting, posted on Monday, includes “Consideration of Awarding Licenses to Qualified Sports Wagering Facility Applicants.”
Some of Maryland’s largest casinos have already built sports betting windows in anticipation of an approval from regulators.
But because of a philosophical divide over the pace of the state’s move into sports gambling, observers caution there is no guarantee the SWARC will allow the casinos to operate “bricks and mortar” sportsbooks.
On one side of the debate are sports fans and casino-owners who want legalization to occur while the National Football League’s regular season is in full swing.
They have a powerful ally in Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who has publicly urged the SWARC to approve applications received from the lottery and gaming commission as quickly as possible.
But some members of the General Assembly — led by Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Legislative Black Caucus Chair Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s) — are concerned that a handful of expedited approvals will benefit established out-of-state players, making it hard for Maryland-based newcomers to get a foot in the door. That’s what occurred with the rollout of medical cannabis, critics contend.
In an interview with Maryland Matters, Hogan accused some members of the General Assembly of pushing for a lengthy delay.
“I think they’re exerting some influence on that commission that they created,” Hogan said. “It appears as if some folks in the legislature are trying to delay it for more than a year — going against what they wrote in the legislation.”
“I think that would be a huge mistake,” he added.
Barnes said he has no objection to the five casinos being cleared to operate, but he wants Riverboat on the Potomac, a Black-owned business on the Potomac near Colonial Beach, Va., that is affiliated with the Maryland Jockey Club, to be among the first wave of approvals.
“We need to make sure that the one [minority business enterprise] that was written into the [sports wagering] bill be awarded a license and given an opportunity to compete like everybody else,” Barnes said. “I’m not against the five that’s going in. …We all want to see those revenues.”
Hogan didn’t say why members of the legislature would want to slow Maryland’s entry into sports gambling, but his comments were an apparent reference to a “disparity study” that the lottery and gaming commission conducted.
That study is an integral part of the legislature’s push to give Black-, Hispanic- and women-owned businesses an equal shot at growing a customer base.
In September, the application review commission received a closed-door briefing from the attorney general’s office.
Afterward, E. Randolph Marriner, chair of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Commission and a member of the SWARC, moved to have staff conduct “another disparity review to make sure that what we’re doing complies with the law.”
No one offered an explanation as to why another study was needed, but a source with knowledge told Maryland Matters at the time that the original review was “screwed up.”
Barnes said he “absolutely” shares Hogan’s concern about the length of time a new study would take. “If we have to wait on a diversity study, we will not be up and running for a year. That’s unacceptable.”
Adding layers of uncertainty to what the SWARC will do this week are other items on their agenda.
The panel will also receive a presentation on a memorandum of understanding regarding “New Investors Consideration of Awarding Licenses to Qualified Sports Wagering Facility Applicants.”
It will also review and adopt “the SWARC Application Supplement,” a document which has not been made public but which — in the words of one close observer — could add “weeks” to the approval process, depending on what it entails.
Because the Lottery and Gaming Commission must still approve the companies that will operate the casinos’ sportsbooks, the panel has added an extra meeting to its November calendar. In the interview, Hogan insisted that “the executive branch is done on the first approvals” and that “they should already have been taking bets a couple weeks ago.”
Nonetheless, with the NFL season approaching its midpoint and Virginia poised to set a record for online sports wagering, the governor continues to urge regulators to move forward speedily.
“We can’t afford a year-long delay,” he said.