US online gambling builds momentum entering 2020
Online Poker Report

10 For ’20: US Online Gambling Stories To Watch In The New Year

2020 online gambling predictions

With 2019 in the books and 2020 now officially underway, it’s time to look ahead at what the coming year might bring for the gambling industry.

Online gambling in the US – including online poker – is undergoing a period of rapid growth after several years of relative stagnation. Last year was the biggest one yet for US online poker players, and 2020 should be even bigger.

Here are some of the most interesting storylines to watch as we roll into the new year, and what they could mean for poker’s prospects in the US.

#10: Apple’s anti-gambling policies

The mobile segment is increasingly important to online gambling. Unfortunately, Apple, whose iOS platform holds slightly more than a 50% market share in the US, has shown itself in 2019 to be unfriendly to real-money gambling.

Its most troublesome policy isn’t an enormous deal for poker, at least. By banning the use of wrapped HTML 5 code for real-money transactions, however, it has created significant headaches for online casinos and sportsbooks.

If operators have trouble deploying their non-poker verticals on iOS, that could adversely impact their mobile poker efforts by extension.

Apple moreover tends to update its policies on a regular basis, so we could see additional hostility. Conversely, it might decide to walk back its policies somewhat as online gambling finds greater social, legal and political acceptance in the US. Either way, Apple will likely find its way back into our headlines in 2020.

#9: WSOP online bracelet expansion

Since introducing its first online bracelet event in 2015, the World Series of Poker (WSOP) has been aggressively growing the online component of its series.

Last year marked the biggest expansion to date, with both the number of events and total prizepools more than doubling. There were nine events in total, generating almost $10 million in combined prize money.

Based on its strategy in past years, it’s unlikely the WSOP will add more than one new event in 2020. However, in years that no new events have been added, entries have historically grown by around 30%. Whether that pace can continue in 2020 remains to be seen. It’s also worth watching the adjustments WSOP makes to its existing events based on 2019’s turnout.

We should have an answer to that latter question in a matter of weeks, as the WSOP usually announces its full schedule in January.

#8: Partypoker Nevada?

GVC obtained a license to operate in Nevada this year, including approval for online poker. Could licensure precipitates a partypoker launch in the Silver State?

The Nevada online poker market is currently a monopoly, held jointly by WSOP/888. The state’s online gambling legislation contains bad actor language which excludes PokerStars from the market.

Until recently, Nevada was probably too small a market to make it worthwhile for partypoker to establish a site there. However the liquidity-sharing arrangement between Nevada and New Jersey which began in 2018 may change that calculation.

There’s been no official word of a partypoker Nevada launch, but it’s a possibility to keep an eye out for.

#7: West Virginia online poker launch

West Virginia legalized online and retail sports betting in 2018 and the other online verticals this past year. We’re still waiting for the first online casinos and poker sites to launch, however. Online poker, in particular, faces a couple of difficult challenges in West Virginia.

Online sports betting got off to a rocky start, most notably, which doesn’t bode well for the other verticals. Only one license-holder bothered to launch an app at first, and it went offline after only a few months. Fortunately, FanDuel and DraftKings have both since launched their WV online sportsbooks.

What’s more, the state’s small population is going to make liquidity a problem. Without a firm plan to share traffic with other, larger states, West Virginia may be too small a market to attract online poker operators.

We’ll likely see the first WV online casinos in 2020, but online poker remains a big question mark.

#6: The Connecticut lawsuit

The political will to pass online gambling legislation exits in Connecticut, but everything is being held up by a contentious lawsuit. The litigation involves the Department of the Interior (DOI)tribal casinos, and MGM Resorts.

In a nutshell, the DOI insists that the bill include provisions for new land-based casinos as well as online gambling. The tribes currently have exclusive rights to operate such casinos, but the new ones would be off of tribal lands.

MGM is suing because it believes any casinos built outside of tribal lands should be subject to a bidding process. The tribes say they’ll stop sharing slots revenues with the state if their exclusivity is not honored.

There’s a strong chance that Connecticut will eventually legalize online gambling, including poker. Whether that happens in 2020 depends on how long the lawsuit drags out, however, and how it’s ultimately resolved.

#5: Kentucky will try, try again

When it comes to online gambling legislation, nothing’s ever a done deal until the ink is dry on the final signatures. However, Kentucky seems like about as close to a lock to pass legislation in 2020 as you’re likely to see.

The state came close to passing a bill in 2019. Although it came up short, the odds appear much better in 2020. The state’s new governor, Andy Beshear, is a vocal proponent of online gambling, and the bill will require fewer votes to pass in this budget year.

This is a story we’re likely to see some movement on quite soon, as Kentucky’s 2020 legislative session begins on Jan. 7.

#4: More online competition in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania was in focus in 2019, having opened its doors for online gambling in July.

Although revenue has been growing rapidly since launch, getting to market has been a slow process for individual sites. Only three online casinos went live in the first days after the market’s opening, and poker players had to wait until November to see PokerStars finally open its doors in the state.

Ultimately, only five of eight online casinos expected to open in 2019 did so, with three pushed back to 2020. There should eventually be many more online poker rooms in the state — including WSOP/888, partypoker, SugarHouse, and Parx — but so far, PokerStars still holds a PA monopoly.

Following PokerStars’ launch, the PA Gaming Control Board said that it expected at least one more room to follow before the year’s end. Though that didn’t happen, it means we can probably expect some competition to arrive in early 2020.

PokerStars was a latecomer in New Jersey, so it will be interesting to monitor its success in Pennsylvania as the first to market.

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#3: Michigan’s timeline to market

Michigan became a surprise last-minute addition to the year’s top stories when its legislature managed to push through a full online gambling package just before its session came to a close. It had previously passed a similar bill at the end of 2018, only to have it vetoed by then-Governor Rick Snyder just before he left office.

Though the package covers all online verticals including poker, there’s still some regulatory detail left to iron out before the licensing process can begin. So although we know online gambling is coming to Michigan, we don’t know exactly when.

It will probably take at least a year before the first sites go live. That means we’re unlikely to see an actual launch in 2020, but we can look forward to learning a lot about the whos and whats and whens.

#2: DOJ Wire Act loss, appeal

Even as many states embrace online gambling, the federal government seems adamant in continuing to make itself a thorn in the side of the industry. The Restoration of America’s Wire Act bill (RAWA) would have expanded the 1961 federal law to cover all forms of online gambling, not only sports betting as it currently does.

RAWA failed to pass in congress, but the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a late-2018 memorandum unilaterally changing its interpretation of the current Wire Act. The New Hampshire Lottery Commission (NHLC), fearing this opinion would make its interstate lottery illegal, filed suit.

In June, a District Court judge ruled in the NHLC’s favor. That was a big win for online poker as well as the NHLC, as a broader interpretation of the Wire Act could also make multi-state poker impossible. The DOJ, however, has taken the case to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

A lot of what might happen in 2020 hinges on that appeal.

#1: The Stars Group/Flutter merger

The biggest story of 2019 was the surprise announcement of the acquisition of The Stars Group (TSG) by Flutter Entertainment Plc. Flutter already comprises Paddy Power, Betfair, and FanDuel, as well as a number of smaller brands. The acquisition, once complete, will make Flutter the world’s largest online gambling company by a big margin.

Though the story broke in 2019, the merger itself won’t be completed until sometime in Q2 or Q3 2020. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but it’s hard to imagine a deal of this magnitude not having enormous repercussions.

What it means for poker is similarly undetermined. PokerStars is still the core of TSG’s business, but has been steadily declining in importance as the company expands its casino and sportsbook verticals. Being lumped into a megacorporation with several big sports brands could further dilute its importance.

On the other hand, the new company’s executive leadership will be more experienced and arguably better than TSG’s current team. The emerging US online gambling market is also thought to be a major impetus for the deal, and there are plenty of new opportunities for poker appearing there — Pennsylvania now, and soon Michigan, then potentially Kentucky and Connecticut.

Things to watch for in the latter half of 2020, then, include any signs of change in corporate strategy for PokerStars and what sort of inter-brand and inter-vertical cross-selling takes place.

Alex Weldon
- Alex is a freelance writer and artist living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He has been doing data-based analysis of the online gaming industry since 2016.
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