It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it?
Both within the US and globally, January 1, 2020 feels like an eternity ago. Of course, nothing that could happen within the gambling industry compares in scope with the pandemic or the political drama that has unfolded. It has, nonetheless, been an eventful 12 months.
Being as young as it is, the US sports betting and iGaming space is difficult to predict. Some of the most important events of the year weren’t all that surprising. For instance, FanDuel entering the online casino market was only natural, and the various mergers, acquisitions and IPOs have become routine.
Other events were less foreseeable. As we count down the days until it’s time to throw out our calendars, here are some of the biggest surprises and worst disappointments that we’ve covered at OnlinePokerReport in 2020.
The 3 biggest surprises of 2020
#1: The COVID online casino boom proves lasting
We’re not going to count COVID itself as a surprise. It certainly caught the world unprepared, and has changed the face of the gaming industry as well as our everyday lives. However, for our purposes it’s not so much a story about gambling as it is the backdrop for every other story we’re going to look at.
The most direct and obvious effect it had on the gaming industry was the shutdown of land-based casinos around the world. In the US, that began in mid-March. A few casinos had begun reopening by the end of April, but it wasn’t until July that 80% had done so, and the total never reached 100% before the second wave of casino closures began.
What’s even more surprising is that, in the case of casinos, it hasn’t come back down all that much. Pennsylvania online casinos would have been growing either way, as the state only launched last year. However, in New Jersey, we wouldn’t have expected a huge change from 2019 to 2020.
And yet, even NJ online casinos have been consistently posting revenue figures that are double what we saw in 2019. November was the first month that the annual growth was less than 100%, but it was still a remarkable 88%. Poker has fallen a little more, despite having enjoyed an even bigger initial spike, but still remains up 60% year over year in NJ.
#2: WSOP moves online, strikes international deal with GGPoker
Another effect of the casino shutdown was the cancellation of this summer’s World Series of Poker (WSOP). Even had there been a way to host it at the Rio as usual, attendance would have been way down due to travel restrictions and COVID fears.
Rather than call 2020 a write-off, WSOP decided to move things online. It began by holding two series of WSOP Circuit events. The first was on its own site, WSOP.com and the second on GGPoker, for international players.
Choosing GGPoker was surprising in its own right. It’s 888poker which powers WSOP’s site, and GGPoker is essentially an unknown brand in the US. GGPoker does, however, court international tournament pros, while 888’s tournament attendance has been on the decline in recent years.
Those WSOP Circuit ring events proved very popular. The company therefore opted to go for broke and host an entire series of WSOP bracelet events online in similar fashion. It awarded 31 bracelets to US players on its own site, and produced by far the largest online poker series in US history in the process. Another 54 bracelets went out through the companion series on GGPoker. The combined total of 85 online WSOP bracelets represented nearly a tenfold increase over last year’s nine, which was itself a record at the time.
Now, it is in the process of hosting a replacement for the Main Event, with a US and an international bracket, each culminating in a live final table. Argentinian Damian Salas won the international bracket, while the US final table will begin play on December 28. Its winner will face Salas heads-up, in person, to determine the titular champion.
#3: West Virginia launches online casinos way ahead of schedule
Given how hotly anticipated iGaming launches are, it’s hard to imagine one catching the gambling media by surprise. And yet, West Virginia managed exactly that.
The Mountain State passed its gambling expansion bills in early 2019. At the time, however, it warned that it might take until February 2021 for the first WV online casinos to launch.
Instead, it managed to get them off the ground nearly nine months ahead of schedule, in July. This wasn’t completely out of the blue, as the West Virginia Lottery, which regulates gaming in the state, announced in May that it had filed emergency rules, which could pave the way for a summer launch. However, there was no further communication out of the state until DraftKings Casino was actually up, running and taking bets.
Given the way other states have conditioned us to expect delays, seeing such a swift launch with minimal foreshadowing was indeed a surprise.
The 3 biggest disappointments of 2020
#1: Legislative failures in Kentucky and Connecticut
Gambling expansion faced an uphill climb in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some legislatures had to shorten or suspend their sessions, but even those which continued to work had bigger priorities than iGaming and sports betting.
Even so, it was unfortunate to watch both Kentucky and Connecticut fail in their efforts. It wasn’t the first time either state had tried, but early in the year, there was cause to believe that 2020 represented the best chance either had seen to date. Neither can really blame the pandemic for their woes, either.
In Kentucky, the issue has always been the state’s conservative politics, and groups which resist gambling expansion on moral grounds. Although it’s a Republican House Representative, Adam Koenig, who champions sports betting and online poker in the state, he’s had a hard time getting his fellow party members on board. There seemed to be a better chance in 2020 than 2019 due to the support of the new governor, Andy Beshear, and the fact that fewer votes are needed for revenue-related bills in budget years.
However, this year’s bill was already stagnating before COVID hit, and the disease merely hammered the final nail into its coffin. 2021 is probably a writeoff as well, so Kentucky will now have to wait until 2022.
Connecticut’s issues are more complex, and have been covered extensively by OnlinePokerReport and others. In a nutshell, the state probably needed to offer iGaming as an enticement to the local tribal gaming companies to compromise on sports betting exclusivity. However, Gov. Ned Lamont was opposed to that idea, so the effort stalled. The good news here is that he’s recently changed his tune, and chances look good for 2021.
#2: No second poker site in Pennsylvania
From the start, the story of PA online poker has been one of near-constant frustration for players. They had been expecting a big synchronized iGaming launch in July 2019, but instead just got three online casinos to start, with a limited range of games.
It took four months just for PokerStars to arrive. That was exciting enough, at first, but within months, players were clamoring for a second option.
WSOP and Partypoker both intend to launch in the state eventually, but have been vague about when. In the meantime, Pennsylvanians have had to deal with a couple of false alarms.
First were the promotional emails sent by WSOP to Pennsylvania players in October. These turned out to be a mistake.
Second was BetMGM’s recent launch in the state. Its parent company, Roar Digital, is a joint venture between MGM Resorts International and Entain (formerly GVC), which owns Partypoker. Thus, the launch of the online casino made it seem like a poker site was imminent, whether under the Partypoker or BetMGM Poker brand.
In the end, though, neither of these hopes panned out, and PA poker players will be still be waiting come New Year.
#3: Michigan fails to hurry its launch
Last but not least, Michigan has failed in its efforts to expedite its iGaming launch.
The Wolverine State passed its full package of gambling expansion bills in the midnight hour of its 2019 legislative session. Like West Virginia, it cautioned that it would probably take until early 2021 for MI online casinos and poker sites to launch.
Also like West Virginia, it attempted to hurry this process once the consequences of the brick and mortar casino shutdown became apparent. Unfortunately, it didn’t have nearly as much success.
At one point, October looked like a possibility. Then it was Thanksgiving weekend, and finally mid-December. Each of these speculative dates proved too ambitious in the end.
Now, we’re back to looking at a mid-January launch. While that’s only weeks away at this point, it nonetheless comes as a disappointment to Michigonians that they’ll be leaving 2020 the same way they came into it, without a legal option for online gambling.