Urban One's proposal for a 'One Casino + Hotel' has been selected by the city of Richmond, pending voter approval.

Virginia’s Gambling Expansion Efforts Are Speeding Along, But Prospects For Online Casino And Poker Remain Uncertain

Virginia lawmakers aren’t wasting any time on opening up Old Dominion to legal wagering. The state has authorized construction of five retail casinos at a cost of nearly $2.3 billion. Also in the last year, it passed legislation to create seven licensed online sportsbooks and an iLottery.

The only major gambling products absent from this recent expansion are Virginia online casino gambling and online poker. However, with the heft of the operators entering the state, a push for those options will likely come soon.

“Soon,” though, is a relative term in a state whose bicameral legislature won’t reconvene until January 2022. Then it will adjourn a month later.

During their short session in February 2020, the House and Senate did pass legislation for the Virginia iLottery and agree on sports betting and casino construction. The casinos required permission from the municipalities in question, in the form of ballot measures. Four have received that permission already, while Richmond missed the original window and will get its vote in November

As a result of that, major US online casino operators are already established in Virginia’s sports wagering space. These are likely the entities who will push for Virginia online casinos.

Virginia’s online sportsbooks are big brands

FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM, BetRivers, WynnBet, Unibet and William Hill – soon to be renamed Caesars – brought nearly $11.4 million in adjusted gross revenue into the state during April 2021, the Virginia Lottery reported in May. The state’s gambling regulator also stated it had approved Bally’s, Golden Nugget and Penn Sports Interactive, which partners with Barstool. However as of April 21, those last three apps hadn’t yet launched.

That means in the realm of online sportsbooks, Virginia will only approve a few more skins. For those who remember that the Virginia General Assembly stated the lottery could issue 12 permits, the law made a special exception. Then Viriginia legislators came in and clarified that the state’s five retail casinos could each have an online sportsbook. (Unlike many other states, Virginia allows mobile-only sportsbooks, without land-based casino partners.)

As the Virginia Lottery puts it about one of the Virginia online sportsbooks exceptions:

“The cap of 12 permits does not include applications tied to certain major league sports franchises that are headquartered in or play at a facility located in Virginia.”

The Big Three dominate as usual

FanDuel, the operator with 53% of the state’s market share, is partnered with the Washington Football Team. That NFL team is holding its training camp in Richmond in July. Virginia is also negotiating a stadium deal with the team, which would relocate it from FedExField in Maryland.

FanDuel began taking bets in January, when online sports betting launched in Virginia.

Rounding out the Big Three online gambling operators in the US, DraftKings and BetMGM also launched sports betting apps in January. However, DraftKings holds less than half as much of the market in the No. 2 spot with 24%.

BetMGM is at No. 3 with 14% of Virginia’s online sports betting market share. This brand, though, is primarily known for its online casino offering in other states. For instance, the brand owned by MGM Resorts International and Entain started and stayed at No. 1 in Michigan since that state launched online casino and sports betting simultaneously in January.

MGM is of course a giant in the retail casino industry. Virginians living in Alexandria can most likely see the 1.7 million-square-foot MGM National Harbor Casino just across the Potomac River in Maryland. That luxury casino and hotel cost $1.5 billion to construct and opened in December 2016.

Richmond will also house a nearly $563 million retail casino

Whether the Washington Football Team relocates more than its Richmond training camp to Virginia or not, five retail casinos will be located in the state soon. Together, they will cost nearly $2.3 billion to build.

The most expensive and expansive one will be on Richmond’s South Side, provided voters approve it in November. Assuming that vote passes, One Casino + Resort will take shape on land now known as the Phillip Morris Operations Center. The nearly $563 million structure will house an onsite sportsbook, but doesn’t yet specifically call for online wagering options – casino, poker or sports.

The casino plan presented by One’s operator, RVA Entertainment Holdings, does name poker as a flagship offering in the 90,000-square-foot gaming layout:

“The Casino Plan will include a poker room and a high-limit gaming area. Win percentages will be made available at the player’s club.”

RVA is a subsidiary of Urban One, a media company focused on Black culture, presented the plan to the city. Formal approval is still required before the measure can go on the ballot in November.

That approval is all but a given, however, as Richmond City Council formally chose One’s RVA Entertainment Holdings as the casino operator on June 14. That 8-1 vote meant that council sent the operator along to the Virginia Lottery Board for pre-certification.

Not quite at the finish line

A representative of Council Vice President Ellen F. Robertson told Online Poker Report there is yet another step officials need to take before voters can decide on the retail casino’s fate. Tavares M. Floyd, speaking on behalf of the councilwoman who voted in favor of One, said council needs to approve a final Host Community Agreement.

Right now, it’s in the draft stage that contains the Casino Plan language above regarding poker.

Answering OPR, Floyd stated:

“I do not know if ONE Casino + Resort has plans to enter online gambling.”

One spokesman Mark B. Hubbard told OPR:

“We need to get voter approval at a referendum on Nov. 2 before we are official, and then will not be opening until at least 2023. So we are still in the very early stages of this project.”

Virginia voters already approved 4 other retail casinos in 2020

In November 2020, voters in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth approved referendums allowing the construction of retail casinos in their cities.

The Pamunkey Indian Tribe is constructing the $500 million HeadWaters Resort & Casino in Norfolk. There’s no announcement yet about online wagering partners.

In its announcement about its $300 million Rivers Casino Portsmouth project, Rush Street Gaming stated:

“Rivers Casino’s gaming floor will feature a wide variety of slots, table games, a poker room and a state-of-the-art BetRivers Sportsbook.”

BetRivers was one of the first online sports betting apps launched in Virginia. If online casinos become legal, this retail property will provide it with access to that market as well.

Similarly, Caesars Entertainment’s upcoming $400 million casino resort in Danville already has an associated online sports betting app, William Hill.

Conversely, an organization known to have a significant US online wagering presence instead attempted to get temporary retail casino operations as it built its $400 million Hard Rock Casino in Bristol. The Virginia Lottery denied that request in April.

With five casinos on the way and MGM’s gargantuan structure just across the river, Virginians will have a lot of retail casino square footage to roam. But as the Virginia Lottery makes clear, its pre-certification process reviews the financial viability of proposed operators. That’s what happens before voters decide to approve retail casinos for Virginia’s 8.5 million residents or its tourists. Those visitors spent $27 billion in the commonwealth in 2019, before the market disruptions caused by the pandemic.

- 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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