Ronnie Johns

Ronnie Johns, center, chairs his first meeting of the Gaming Control Board on Thursday, August 19, 2021.

State gambling regulators are close to approving the first phase of sports betting, but Louisiana State Police aren't quite ready to recommend which of the 13 applications will be first to allow on-premises, in-person wagering on sporting events.

“November is realistic,” Maj. Chuck McNeal, whose State Police Gaming Enforcement Division is vetting the applicants, said in an interview after the Gaming Control Board met Thursday. “The problem we’re having is with the internal controls.”

McNeal was referring to procedures for how the casinos handle the betting and account for the money that is collected; the exact procedures for paying a winning ticket and how long winners have to collect; and what happens if the event is canceled. McNeal said all those picayune details need to be worked out, agreed to by regulators and committed to in writing.

“There’s been a lot of back-and-forth,” McNeal said. “It’s new for them. It’s new for us.”

All that has to be worked out before anybody can go live, said Assistant Attorney General Dawn Himel, deputy director for the Gaming Division at the state Department of Justice.

“We’re working through a process right now for the in-house licensing — that’s going to come first,” she added.

The newly enacted law allows the 20 casinos — on riverboats, at racetracks, in the New Orleans land-based complex — to apply for licenses to operate a sportsbook.

The first phase of the rollout will be to allow betting to take place in person, in a casino. Eventually, people will be able to place bets on smartphones; over the internet; and in bars and restaurants serving alcoholic beverages. But that’s down the road.

Before even the retail betting inside casinos can start, State Police have to recommend accepting a temporary license and the chair of the Gaming Control Board, Ronnie Johns, has to sign the paperwork allowing the casino to begin operations.

“I’m not going to give you a definitive date of when we’re going to issue licenses. But I am going to say it’s going to be soon,” Johns said.

Johns said he has been buffeted with calls about just when wagering on sporting events can start. Legislators passed the bills, which the governor signed in June, to allow sports betting in Louisiana. Regulators have since been setting up operations, making rules and taking applications.

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He also has been dealing with rumors, such as betting online would start soon, perhaps as early as this weekend. Johns said no.

“That’s not going to happen,” Johns said. “It’s a very complicated process, and we’re going to do it the right way.”

McNeal and Himel said most states use statewide geofencing technology that places the bettor’s location and allows wagering only if they are within a specific state’s boundaries.

Louisiana law, however, required voters in each of the 64 parishes to determine if they would allow sports betting in their jurisdiction. Fifty-five of the parishes said yes last fall. So, the geofencing technology needs to establish where the bettor is located, then allow the wager to be placed in one of the 55 approved parishes.

The software and technology providers, who contract with one of the 20 casinos holding a license, need to show regulators how their geofencing works, then prove it by sending a person into the parishes to try it out, McNeal said.

The Gaming Control Board did approve the parameters allowed for sports betting that lists the sports on which wagers can be made: NASCAR races, soccer, badminton and snooker, for instance.

They also decided those on which betting can be prohibited, primarily high school sports, but also any events where the majority of participants are 18 or younger. So, although betting is allowed on the Olympic competitions, those where most of the competitors are underage, such as gymnastics, are not.

The board also allowed a second company, FanDuel Inc., to handle fantasy sports contests in the state. DraftKings already has been approved for the contests in which participants paying a fee can make up a team using real sports figures, then receive points for how well the members of that team performed in real life. The winners receive prizes for the most points.

Fantasy sports is an adjunct to sports betting, and the companies that operate the fantasy games are expected to apply to contract their technology when the license-holding casinos are ready to expand to allow people to make bets on smartphones and online.

FanDuel, which is owned by Irish bookmakers Flutter Entertainment, has lost money as it gets set up in the U.S. and doesn’t expect to make money until 2023. FanDuel operates in 45 states and Washington, D.C. Because the group will have no brick-and-mortar location in Louisiana, the state has no financial exposure, and Louisiana State Police recommended allowing a three-year license, which the board approved without dissent.

Johns noted the firm’s financial losses but was optimistic about the future of fantasy sports. “Especially with sports book coming, it’s just a hot item here in Louisiana right now. I can assure you. I think you’re going to do well,” he said.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.