Columns | Northwest Herald

Eye On Illinois: Gambling expansion a Prairie State inevitability

Fifty years ago, you couldn’t buy a lottery ticket in Illinois. Or anywhere, for that matter.

Thirty-two years ago, Illinois didn’t have a single riverboat casino, and 24 years ago you couldn’t wager unless the boat was moving.

Ten Septembers ago, video games switched from “for amusement only” to actual gambling terminals.

Illinois’ first legalized sports bets were placed in March 2020.

Scott T. Holland

That half century of increasing acceptance of legalized wagering – and warm embrace of the attendant revenue benefits – probably isn’t surprising to those familiar with how quickly we went from Al Capone’s bootlegging days to popular taverns in nearly every ZIP code. Or the short evolution from Nancy Reagan’s first “Just say no” in 1984 to the legal, recreational pot sales being a billion-dollar industry in Illinois.

All of which is to say there’s no good reason to discount the weekend Associated Press report about future gambling expansion in Illinois: online casino games.

The news came out of the East Coast Gaming Congress, where online gambling executives and technology partners said states that have already launched sports gambling have the regulatory and infrastructure to take on yet another market.

Illinois would be playing catch-up to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia, Delaware and Connecticut, and conference panelists said Indiana, Iowa and New York are positioned similarly.

Citing the American Gaming Association, The AP reported New Jersey’s online casinos have taken in $4.79 billion over the past nine years. Pennsylvania opened for business in July 2019, yielding $2.47 billion. Michigan reports $2 billion since the start of 2021.

These types of figures make government budget officials swoon. The cost of running the state always goes up while the public’s appetite for paying sales, property and income tax moves hard the opposite direction.

That Illinois has already demonstrated a willingness to move away from a legacy of horse tracks and brick-and-mortar casinos to chase the next revenue high is all the more reason to presume this trend is a matter of when, not if.

The main drama would seem to be whether existing Illinois gambling purveyors’ push to expand their reach into the online might run up against the final lengths of longstanding efforts to open a physical casino in Chicago. Now that Bally’s has won the City Council’s approval for a $1.7-billion River West complex, the effort is closer to the finish line than once thought possible, but still not an absolute certainty.

Predicting gambling will continue to grow in Illinois is like saying the sun will rise in the east, the Bears will try build a suburban stadium and politicians will run afoul of federal investigators. Long-time Illinois residents know some things are just certainties.

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at

Scott Holland

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at