MGM, Wynn, Rush Street and Hard Rock among potential bidders for Chicago casino resort

As Illinois Considers Legalizing Online Gambling, Major Operators Line Up To Bid For New Chicago Casino

Online casino gambling may come to Illinois around the same time as work gets underway on Chicago’s first retail casino. The latter project is just entering the proposals stage, and the winning bidder will probably be hoping to enter the state’s future iGaming market, as well.

Both online casino legalization in Illinois and acceptance of a Chicago retail casino bid may happen this year. The stars seem to be aligning for rapid gambling expansion in the state, despite its politicians’ complicated attitudes toward online gambling.

This month, city officials plan to request proposals from companies interested in building the casino. There are several other retail gambling establishments already operating in the state, including in the satellite communities around Chicago. The new casino will be the first within the city proper, however.

As for online gambling, Illinois currently allows sports betting. To the frustration of bettors in the state, the pandemic exception that allowed mobile user registration just ended on Easter Sunday. Gov. J.B. Pritzker told the Chicago Sun-Times the pandemic waiver is “no longer needed” and sportsbook bettors can return to registering at land-based casinos, in spite of a current virus spike.

2021: a big year for Illinois gambling expansion

In February, Illinois legislators introduced a bill in the House that would legalize online casino and poker.

The proposed law is more flexible than legislation in other states in the long run. It also looks to expedite the market’s launch, potentially within 2021. Unfortunately, it will also require land-based user registration for online casino and poker players for the first six months.

That poses a bit of a burden for gamblers living in central Chicago, who’d currently have to drive out to Aurora, Des Plaines or Joliet to register.

The new Chicago casino probably won’t open until 2025, by which time the in-person registration window will be long since expired. However, Mayor Lori Lightfoot hopes to expedite that timeframe by allowing a temporary location.

The chosen operator could have a temporary casino erected for up to 36 months, Bloomberg reports. Depending on how quickly that can be set up, it could provide some relief from the inconvenience of in-person registration for central Chicagoans.

Wynn and MGM among potential bidders

Whatever organization submits the winning bid for the Chicago casino will likely want to offer online casino, as well. Even once the in-person registration requirement lapses, having a physical presence helps a company’s performance in the iGaming space and vice versa.

Illinois may end up allowing market access for the winning bidder even before the casino opens. There is precedent for that in Pennsylvania, where Cordish Companies was allowed to launch its PlayLive! Online Casino before cutting the tape on either of its retail properties.

Speculation continues about which brands will vie for the Chicago retail location. Odds are good, given the timing, that it will be a company active in the online space.

Among the organizations that responded to Chicago’s request for information:

  • MGM Resorts International
  • Rush Street Gaming
  • Wynn Resorts Ltd.
  • Hard Rock International

MGM seems like a strong candidate, because it is the online market leader with BetMGM Casino. On the other hand, it already had a property in the state until just three years ago, and it would be a little odd to build a new one so soon after exiting the state.

Golden Nugget is conspicuously missing

Another big online brand you might expect to make a bid would be Golden Nugget Online Gaming. It clearly understands the importance of a retail presence, given that it is market leader in New Jersey, yet close to the bottom of the heap in Michigan. However, it wasn’t among the companies to respond to Chicago’s request for information.

One possible reason for this is that it already secured iGaming access for the state last September and is already offering sports betting. It did so through a deal with Wilmot Gaming which includes using Golden Nugget’s brand for Wilmot’s upcoming casino in Danville. The company may see it as redundant to have another casino so close by.

On the other hand, that hasn’t stopped Rush Street or Hard Rock. The former’s Rivers Casino Des Plaines is much closer to downtown Chicago than Danville is. Rush Street considers Illinois to be its home turf, however. It may therefore be as interested in keeping out competition as anything else.

Hard Rock, meanwhile, has a casino just across the border in Gary, Indiana. This is an easy drive for Chicagoans, and Gary is part of the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area. However, it wouldn’t help with Illinois online gambling, which may be why Hard Rock is considering a bid anyway.

For Golden Nugget, it may simply be a matter of limited funds and other places to spend them. It is, for instance, one of several companies to bid for the right to build a casino in Richmond, Virginia. Chicago has made it clear that it doesn’t just want any old casino, but a Las Vegas scale resort to attract tourists. Such an endeavor may be better suited for the likes of MGM or Wynn.

- Heather Fletcher is the lead writer with OnlinePokerReport. She's a career journalist, with bylines in The New York Times, Adweek and other publications. Reach her at [email protected]
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