Over the last 12 months, Arizona regulators have constantly been surprised. In a good way.
On Sept. 9, 2021, the state became the biggest in the West to go live with digital and retail event wagering. From the time-release map the geofencing company GeoComply shared on that first day, to reaching $1 billion in handle in under three months, to consistently seeing handle of about $500 million per month, well, Arizona Department of Gaming Director Ted Vogt has been all smiles.
“The first year was better than I expected,” Vogt said. “I think what surprised us the most was the pent-up demand for event wagering in the state, and how consistent it has been. Everything shows us that the fundamentals are there for a strong market.”
The numbers bear that out — Arizona operators were the fastest in U.S. history (at the time) to reach $1 billion in handle, needing only 82 days, and reached $4 billion in handle in eight months. If the numbers stay consistent, Arizona operators likely broke the $5 billion handle barrier in July, 11 months after launch. For comparison, Illinois operators are currently the fastest new market to $5 billion in the post-PASPA era in 16 months. In March, Arizona bettors wagered a record $691 million, and that same month, a single operator — DraftKings — surpassed $1 billion in total wagers.
BetMGM, DraftKings, and FanDuel continue to battle for market share in the state, with DraftKings holding a slight edge over FanDuel in handle but FanDuel leading in gross gaming revenue, with BetMGM second in that category. Caesars Sportsbook and Barstool Sportsbook are also in the top five in both categories, but well behind the top three.
Yes, Arizona is sports crazy
With a population of about 7.3 million people, Arizona is the eighth-most populous state to launch wagering since the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was overturned in 2008. Until New York launched digital betting in January 2022 with more than $1 billion in handle the first month, no other state had come close to the speed with which Arizona’s market grew. Home to the NFL Arizona Cardinals, the NBA Phoenix Suns, the MLB Arizona Diamondbacks, the NHL Phoenix Coyotes, two big-time college football and basketball teams at ASU and Arizona, a NASCAR venue, and a PGA Tour stop, Arizona is the true definition of a sports-crazy state, though it is often overlooked in the shadow of California — and in the shadow of Nevada when it comes to gaming.
“It kind of amazed us that in the first three months we reached $1 billion in handle,” Vogt said. “But it was still surprising, and pleasantly so.”
It’s likely that Vogt and his staff will continue to be pleasantly surprised. The NFL season opens Thursday, and will end in Glendale with Super Bowl LVII on Feb. 12, 2023, which coincides with the final round of the PGA’s Phoenix Open. And before all of that, the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race is set for Nov. 6.
“Now that we’re getting into sports season, we have a lot to look forward to,” Vogt said. “There’s cooler weather, more people are coming to Arizona.”
Vogt points to the NFL as being an “excellent” partner, and says his staff has already been in touch with the league to get acquainted before it becomes the first legal wagering jurisdiction in the U.S. to host a Super Bowl. On Thursday, one day before the one-year launch anniversary, Arizona will become home to the first live brick-and-mortar sportsbook at an NFL stadium, when BetMGM unveils its State Farm Stadium location on the The Great Lawn, adjacent to the venue.
BetMGM, like many other operators, has been taking bets online for about a year. The State Farm Stadium book will be the third since Sept. 9, 2021, to open at a professional sports venue in Arizona. The only other U.S. jurisdiction with as many in-stadium sportsbooks is Washington, D.C., which has retail books open at Capital One Arena, Nationals Field, and Audi Field.
Last Sept. 9, FanDuel Sportsbook became the first to open a retail sportsbook at a pro venue in Arizona, though there are eight operators tethered to professional sports venues around the state. FanDuel’s Footprint Center location provides access from both the street and inside the arena, and offers a state-of-the-art video wall. On the same day, Caesars began offering wagering via kiosks around Chase Field, and on June 21 opened a two-story, 22,300-square-foot location adjacent to the ballpark.
Caesars, like several other operators, have multiple retail partners, and could have more than one brick-and-mortar location.
“September 9, 2021, was a historic day for our company marking the first time Caesars Sportsbook launched in a new state on its first day of legalized sports wagering,” Caesars Digital President Eric Hession told Sports Handle via email. “When we look back on this momentous year, we’re encouraged about what lies ahead. Arizona is a state we take pride in operating responsibly in and we’re thankful for our partners — the Arizona Diamondbacks and Ak-Chin Casino — for helping us launch and build for the future in the state.”
In addition to these three, there are plans for sportsbooks at Phoenix Raceway (Barstool Sportsbook) and TPC Scottsdale (DraftKings).
It was a quick turnaround
When Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed the state’s event wagering bill into law on April 15, 2021, it set into motion a five-month sprint for operators and the ADOG. It wasn’t the fastest state to go from legal to live — that was Iowa, in about three months in 2019 — but it was certainly among the quickest.
It was also fairly complicated. Arizona lawmakers made a unique decision when they legalized, calling for a total of 20 licenses that would allow for digital and retail wagering. But those licenses were split — 10 each for professional venues and the state’s tribes. As of today, eight licenses tethered to sports venues have been claimed and all 10 of the tribal licenses have been assigned. Three teams that play at the Footprint Center have partners — the Suns (FanDuel), the WNBA Mercury (Bally Bet), and the Indoor Football League Arizona Rattlers (Rush Street Interactive) — but only FanDuel will have an in-person sportsbook at the venue.
Throughout the process, it was clear that while lawmakers were striving for equity with the split, there were too many licenses allotted to professional franchises and not enough to tribes. During the 2022 legislative session, one bill that would give every tribe access to a license was filed, but didn’t move.
As of the start of NFL season, there are 18 digital platforms and 24 retail locations, including sportsbooks at casinos, professional sports venues, horse racetracks, and OTBs. That number will go up to 25 Thursday, when BetMGM opens its State Farm Stadium location.
Besides promulgating rules in a hurry, the ADOG also had a hand in working on the tribal compacts, which are needed in order for wagering to happen in Indian Country. That process includes approval from the state and the U.S. Department of the Interior, meaning it could easily have slowed down the overall launch process.
“Certainly, we set out an aggressive timetable from passed to go live,” Vogt said. “While we were working on the rules, we were also putting some meat on the bones from the compact negotiations on how event wagering would be conducted on tribal lands, so there was a lot of work there.”
For operators, it was a busy month — those who were licensed were also allowed to open physical sportsbooks in Washington state, also on Sept. 9, 2021, and both BetMGM and DraftKings launched digital sites in Wyoming on Sept. 1, 2021.
In-person wagering spots abound
In addition to being able to bet in person at professional sports venues and tribal casinos, Arizona’s law allows for 10 retail-only licenses for horse racetracks and OTBs. None of those opened on launch day last year, but the ADOG has allotted all 10 licenses, and all but one have been approved for operations. Among those that have opened sportsbooks is Turf Paradise, a track that is also in litigation with the state after it applied for a full event wagering license that would allow it a digital platform as well.
Arizona’s law does not name which professional franchises may apply for licenses. In some states, including Maryland, the law spells out which venues can apply. But in Arizona, the law includes a list of parameters that a professional franchise must meet, rather than indicating which ones. Because of that, the Arizona Rattlers were able to get a license. Turf Paradise claims in its lawsuit that it meets the list of parameters.
When reflecting on the last year, Vogt is quick to point out that he believes that reaching out to other live states and keeping an open dialogue with operators was critical to a successful launch day. Other jurisdictions “pointed out where there would be sticking points and hiccups,” he said. In addition, regulators in other states told Vogt that rules should be tailored to his state, and there there is no plug-and-play template that works across the country.
Staff worked long days and extra days in the final weeks ahead of launch — setting up a day that was the highlight of the first 12 months.
“Launch day was probably the most exciting,” Vogt said. “We made our geolocation publicly available, so you could watch and just start seeing locations turn on. That immediate moment brought a lot of happiness.”
Chris Altruda contributed to this report