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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

A New Bet for the Commonwealth: Sports Wagering, Casinos Join Growing Legal Gambling Options in Virginia

If residents of the commonwealth turn on the TV or scroll through their social media feeds, they will soon be reminded of a law changed in Virginia early in 2021.

Sports betting became legal in the state in April 2020, a change which took effect in January 2021. The moment that happened, Virginians were exposed to a flurry of ads from gambling platforms such as FanDuel and Caesars Sportsbook.

However, legalized gambling is not new. Old Dominion University's State of the Commonwealth Report, RELEASED ONLINE on Dec. 19, devotes a chapter to the increasing prevalence of legal gambling in Virginia.

Starting with the introduction of a state lottery in 1987, Virginia has gradually introduced various forms of legal betting - from scratch-off lottery tickets to off-track betting parlors to games associated with charitable giving.

"Since 2015, the Commonwealth has, in effect, gone 'all in' on gambling," the State of the Commonwealth Report notes. This includes now-ubiquitous online sports betting platforms and commercial casinos soon to open in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth. The lone exception to the trend of easing access to legal betting was the narrow defeat in the 2021 general election of a referendum that would have allowed construction and operation of a casino in Richmond.

The State of the Commonwealth chapter explores the continuing shift in public attitudes toward gambling, which has accompanied state and state legislators' search for more revenues nationwide. "As legal gambling expands in Virginia, the question remains: 'Who benefits and who pays?'" the report asks.

Data on legal gambling suggest that, while localities with new casinos will see increases in jobs and tax revenues, unless the patrons of these gambling houses are from different jurisdictions the net economic benefit is likely to be negligible, redistributing disposable income at the expense of other local businesses. In addition, the easy availability of ever-expanding legal gambling alternatives may cause an increased social toll of addiction and other negative byproducts.

One argument against legal betting that no longer carries much weight is the moral one, the report notes. A 2020 Gallup survey showed that 90% of Americans do not oppose gambling on moral grounds. That shift toward acceptance has been mirrored by exponential growth in new forms of gambling such as sports betting, which is projected to generate annual revenues of $8 billion by 2025, a tenfold increase in less than a decade.

In analyzing the economic impact of casino construction and operation in Virginia, State of the Commonwealth authors note the challenge determining how much of it is "new money" instead of simply redistributed dollars. "Given the hundreds of millions of dollars of proposed spending on their construction, the lack of publicly available information from objective sources on the size, scope and potential impacts of these enterprises is, to put it mildly, surprising," the report notes. "It will be much harder to hold public officials accountable if there is a lack of specifics regarding these casinos prior to their construction."

The 2021 State of the Commonwealth Report or any of the Dragas Center's reports are available at http://www.ceapodu.com/.

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