Sports betting kicks off in West Virginia

CHARLES TOWN — The Sportsbook at the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races kicked off just in time for football season.

That was the goal of the operation as the casino held a gala opening Saturday morning just before the start of the noon games in college football.

Betting on sporting events of all sorts can now take place in West Virginia. The Legislature passed the West Virginia Lottery Sports Wagering Act on March 3 in anticipation of a U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing sports betting. That decision came in May, giving West Virginia a head start for implementing sports betting ahead of surrounding states.

The Charles Town facility is the first and currently only operation to take sports wagers in the Mountain State.

“We wanted to open by football season,” said Erich Zimny, vice president for racing operations at the facility. “…You got to it right.”

West Virginia is the fifth state to allow sports betting after the ruling by the United States Supreme Court in a suit filed by the state of New Jersey to allow sports betting throughout the country. Previously, it was limited to Nevada.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in my 26 years in the business,” said Scott Saunders, the general manager at Charles Town. “I never thought I’d see sports betting outside of the state of Nevada.”

A steady stream of bettors lined up in advance of Saturday’s official opening of the Sportsbook, making their wagers to employees dressed in striped referees jerseys.

Bets were being taken earlier in the week after a soft opening that Zimny said reached six figures in wagering over just two days.

So far, so good from the perspective of casino officials, lottery officials and some state politicians on hand for Saturday’s event, although Zimny mentioned the casino is entering unknown territory.

“Nobody knows for sure,” he said. “It’s a new industry. We’ll know better in a couple of months.”

There will be a mobile app available in a couple of weeks that will change how bets are placed, too, he said.

State Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, praised the state Legislature for enacting rules that allowed West Virginia to become a stakeholder in sports betting virtually from the start.

“We passed this legislation before the Supreme Court even ruled,” Blair said. “We moved by the speed of light.”

Blair said professional sports approached the state about integrity fees, money that would come from the betting and go to the assorted sporting leagues. “It’s not going to happen,” he said.

A ceremonial first bet was tendered by former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who picked hs former team to defeat the Arizona Cardinals in the first NFL game next weekend, among three wagers he made.

The current sports broadcaster, whose focus is on on pro football, played to the crowd by giving some betting advice: “I like West Virginia over Tennessee” in a game that was played later Saturday.

(Kozlowski can be contacted at rkozlowski@journal-news.net)

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