Games paused by virus, Tennessee OKs sports-betting rules

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee has ended months of work setting up its rules for an online-only sports betting law that passed last year and has yet to see its first wager.

The Tennessee Lottery board’s vote Wednesday via teleconference due to the coronavirus pandemic highlights a bigger question: Will there be any games to bet on once sportsbooks are ready to go?

“I believe today that we’re ready to finally adopt all of the rules, regulations and processes so that we can be ready for sports wagering in Tennessee, when sports resume in Tennessee,” lottery board chairwoman Susan Lanigan said before Wednesday’s vote.

While there still isn’t a clear picture of when pro and college sports could restart due to the global pandemic, Tennessee’s sports betting timeline isn’t set in stone yet, either. Sports betting operators and other vendors now need to go through the licensing application process, among other administrative check-offs.

The lottery, which is regulating sports betting in Tennessee, will make applications available on its website next week. The lottery board will have 90 days to approve or deny completed applications.

Tennessee’s sports betting law passed last spring on thin margins. Republican Gov. Bill Lee allowed it to become law without his signature due to his concerns over an expansion of gambling in Tennessee, a state without casinos.

The final version of the sports betting rules settled an ongoing debate over the cap of annual payouts to bettors. Officials picked a cap of 90% for the first year, after floating amounts that included 85% and 95%. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s office weighed in on the change to 90%, Lanigan said.

A spokesman for McNally said, “While the state could conceivably raise the cap at some point in the future, it would be difficult to lower once expectations were set.”

“Lt. Governor McNally believes a 90 percent cap is fair, equitable and in the state’s best interest,” McNally’s spokesman, Adam Kleinheider, said in his statement.

In a previous meeting, lottery president and CEO Rebecca Hargrove said including a cap would ensure a guaranteed amount of profit that is taxable for the state. She also said it would protect an equal playing field for sportsbook operators by ensuring large companies don’t run at a deficit in the short term to secure a big share of the market.

Jennifer Roberts, the lottery’s new sports betting program director, previously recommended having no cap so the state can be “fully competitive with the illegal market.” But Roberts said that if there is a cap, it should be 95%.

The sports betting law officially took effect last June, but required the additional legwork by the lottery and a sports betting council set up by the law.

A draft of the rules was released in November. Professional sports leagues, players’ unions, major gambling companies and others weighed in with suggestions to change the lottery’s rules during a public comment period from late November until early January, spurring changes.

In February, McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton raised concerns about how the rules were shaping up, causing a delay in the lottery’s vote.