CHICAGO — Allowing sports betting at Wrigley Field and the United Center could make Chicago’s first casino a bust, billionaire casino magnate Neil Bluhm told aldermen Monday.
Bluhm spoke to aldermen at a hearing about allowing the city’s stadiums to offer sports betting — but the teams that would benefit from sports betting at stadiums aren’t buying his take.
For months, people trying to get Chicago’s casino license have worked to stall an ordinance that would allow Wrigley Field, Guaranteed Rate Field, Soldier Field, Wintrust Arena and the United Center to establish sports books at their facilities or nearby, The Daily Line reported.
Bluhm, whose Rush Street Gaming is behind two bids for the sole Chicago casino license, brought his fight to a joint hearing of the zoning and license committees, arguing that allowing the city’s stadiums to offer betting would eat into the future casino’s profits and cannibalize the city’s casino tax windfall.
Allowing sports gambling at the stadiums would lessen sports betting revenue inside the casino from “$40 million a year to $13 million,” he said.
The casino’s other wagering attractions, like slots and table games, would take a hit to the tune of $61 million per year because fewer people would visit the casino if sports gambling was legal elsewhere, he said. That would translate to a $12 million loss in tax revenue to the city’s beleaguered tax coffers, he said.
“Common sense and your knowledge of Chicago tells you that the great locations of Wrigley Field and United Center, where the stadiums are, will attract lots of sports betting customers, and this will simply take away customers that would otherwise be at the casino placing bets,” Bluhm said. “To make matters worse, the stadiums will have somewhere near a two-year head start over the casinos, because they could be built quickly at the stadiums. And we’ve got to build … a billion-dollar-plus facility at the new casino.”
The fact that the city’s sports stadiums and have built-in audiences is exactly why they should be allowed to have their own betting operations, ordinance sponsor Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said. Neighborhood bars, restaurants and businesses would also benefit, he said.
“Not only do they build baseball fields, soccer fields, they do a myriad of things that benefit the community,” Burnett said. “Why can’t they get a small piece of this change that these billionaires are getting already in order to continue to help the people in the community?”
The city’s professional sports teams are behind Burnett’s plan, looking to capitalize on the growing sports betting industry by opening large sports books on or near their facilities, including a joint-venture between the Cubs and Draft Kings at Wrigley Field.
Mara Georges, who worked as the city’s top attorney under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, said Bluhm’s projections on tax revenue losses “are not to be taken seriously.” Georges is lobbying for the ordinance on behalf of the Wirtz family, who own the Blackhawks and the United Center, and the Ricketts family, who own the Cubs and Wrigley Field.
Bluhm’s projections “rest in conjecture and fail to accurately state the facts,” Georges said, adding his comments “seem to assume that no person who places a wager at a sports book venue will venture to a casino after the game.”
Plus, Bluhm’s Rivers Casino in suburban Des Plaines is already benefiting from the ban on sports betting in Chicago, Georges said.
“If the tax rate in Illinois gets too high on sports book or sports book is not allowed in the city of Chicago, all that will happen is those bettors will leave the city and flee to locations outside the city,” she said.
If the sports book ordinance is approved, it could generate $2.5 million in upfront first-year revenue to the city through taxes and licensing fees, Georges said. She warned against adding additional city taxes to sports gambling, as some on the committee suggested, saying new taxes would drive bettors outside the city or online, where bettors are able to place a bet from their phone.
Failure to approve the ordinance, or adding taxes to sports betting, could also drive the Bears from the city, she said. The Bears are flirting with a move to suburban Arlington Heights amid protracted negotiations over their lease of Soldier Field with the Park District.
“I feel like an ant between elephants in this situation with all these billionaires fighting over this stuff,” Burnett said, pointing out Bluhm also owns a stake in the Bulls and White Sox.
Curt Bailey, the head of Related Midwest who is partnering with Bluhm on a bid to build a casino at the company’s The 78 mega-development on the Near South Side, said the ordinance would create five large gambling competitors to a casino and would eat away at potential tax revenue.
“Why at this time would you choose to do this and really negatively impact that bidding process? That’s the choice you have. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
Monday’s meeting was for debate only, with no vote scheduled. Even before the back-and-forth between the city’s wealthy power players, several alderpeople expressed concern over the limited tax and fee revenue from sports books compared to the heavily taxed casinos.
“This is one of the worst pieces of legislation I’ve seen,” Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said. Beale stalled the measure this summer by sending it to the Rules Committee when it was introduced. “We should be trying to spend all our time and energy on a casino that’s going to be bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars into the city. To be talking about something that could potentially jeopardize that … that’s absurd.”
Under the ordinance, the owners of the five sports facilities could open a sports betting facility at their stadiums and arenas or within a five block radius of the facility.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: