Ohio bars and bowling alleys are urging Ohio lawmakers to let them in on the action as elected leaders debate how to legalize sports betting across the state.

At this point, they have an uphill fight.

The Ohio House continued hearings last week on a bill that would allow sports betting run by the Ohio Lottery Commission to be played at Ohio’s four casinos, seven racinos, along with fraternal and veterans organizations. It would not permit it at bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, convenience stores or other businesses with lottery terminals.

A bill in the Ohio Senate also would not permit those businesses to host sports betting, instead limiting it to casinos and racinos under the control of the Ohio Casino Control Commission.

“The ability to be able to offer additional entertainment options has become a key factor in our business,” Joe Poelking, who owns three bowling centers in the Dayton area, told a House committee hearing on House Bill 194.

Adding sports betting to his current lottery Keno machines, he said, “would create a much-needed boost to our businesses, a boost that we could use to keep our patrons in our bowling centers a little longer.”

The question of where sports betting should be permitted in Ohio is a key part of the debate over how Ohio proceeds in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year legalizing sports betting nationwide.

Eric Schippers, a top lobbyist for Penn National Gaming, which owns four gambling facilities in Ohio including Hollywood Casino Columbus, recently told a House committee that it is “critical” that sports betting be limited to casinos and racetrack operators.

“We have well-established, rigorous compliance and responsible gaming protocols in place to ensure a safe wagering environment for consumers,” Schippers said.

Key lawmakers are reluctant to spread sports betting to hundreds or even thousands of locations across the state. When Gov. Mike DeWine indicated last week that he favored having the Casino Control Commission oversee sports betting, as is proposed by the Senate, that did not bode well for the hopes of bars and others.

 

Limited gaming

Talking about the issue earlier this year, Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, noted that lawmakers acted a few years ago to shut down internet cafes.

“The Senate was not supportive of having a significant expansion of gaming all across the state,” he said. “I’m on safe ground predicting that would still be the opinion of the majority of my caucus today.”

Sen. John Eklund, R-Chardon, the sponsor of Senate Bill 111, the Senate’s sports betting bill, said wagering on sports is much more sophisticated than simply picking numbers in a traditional lottery or Keno game.

“If we are to allow it in Ohio, it must be carefully controlled to maintain the integrity of the underlying sporting events and the wagering itself,” Eklund wrote recently, arguing that casinos and racinos would set aside special sports betting locations, under the watch of state gaming agents.

“Sports wagering simply does not belong in every convenience store and gas station in Ohio.”

Andrew Herf, executive director of the Ohio Licensed Beverage Association, which represents alcohol permit holders, said if sports betting is legalized, it’s already going to be expanded across the state via access by millions of mobile devices.

Bars, bowling alleys and other locations could offer sports betting through new touch-screen lottery terminals, or by adding games to current Keno machines, Herf said.

“Why wouldn’t they have some system to reward the people who’ve been committed to the lottery for decades?” he said. “Why wouldn’t you want that proven marketing stream churning money for the state? It seems like a blind spot in the policymaking.”

It also could benefit casinos, Herf said, because bars would offer games run by other bookmakers, potentially including Ohio’s casino operators.

 

Many outlets

Roughly 3,000 bars have lottery terminals, but Herf said if the legislature didn’t want to go that far, lawmakers could set limits, such as granting sports betting to the highest lottery sellers.

Rep. David Greenspan, R-Westlake, sponsor of the House sports betting bill, isn’t convinced that bars need to run the games themselves once mobile betting is established.

“They can run whatever marketing and promotional activities to draw people in, with or without the sports gaming equipment they’re talking about,” he said.

Greenspan, who hopes to see the House pass his bill by the end of June, said he has told bar owners that if they get enough legislative support, he won’t oppose adding them to the bill.

Herf said those who bet via their cellphones are different from those who want to use a terminal inside a bar or other business.

“We believe that people who place bets on games watch more, stay longer, and that’s really the upside for bars in Ohio,” he said.

 

Reach Jim Siegel at jsiegel@dispatch.com. On Twitter: @phrontpage.