The Oregon Lottery’s Scoreboard sports wagering offering had wonderful intentions. It had a healthy marketing budget, and a receptive audience, and a mission. But what it hasn’t really yet had is a chance to succeed.
A delayed launch caused it to miss a chunk of the 2019 NFL season, higher than anticipated start-up costs were a killer, but the biggest initial detriment is how hamstrung the enterprise is due to the state’s curious ban on college wagering. The gambling operation lost $5.3 million in its first fiscal year.
More on that in a bit.
First, know that the shutdown of sports caused by the coronavirus pandemic was a crushing and unforeseen blow. Due to cancellations of live professional sporting events, revenue for the Scoreboard operation last month was about 10 percent of what the Oregon Lottery expected. We’re still not sure what is going to happen with the return of sporting events in the next few months. It’s why the lottery is now planning to offer gambling on virtual sports, ranging from horse racing to soccer and greyhound racing.
I get it.
You get it.
The Oregon Lottery is trying to be creative, keep players engaged with the Scoreboard offering while there are no live games being played, and create revenue where there wasn’t any. It’s using temporary rule-making to circumvent the politics and get this done. It won’t need permission from lawmakers or a vote. All of this is legal and moving forward as planned.
I don’t have an issue with it. It’s the kind of sound logic that any smart business trying to keep the lights on during a pandemic might adopt. And if it becomes popular, the lottery keeps virtual sporting events forever. If not, it drops them.
Regardless, this news is being met in the usual anti-sports gambling circles with opposition. The same anti-wagering faction that criticized the Oregon Lottery when it fell short in the first fiscal year is now busy lobbying against the very things that would help the state agency generate revenue and achieve that mission.
The Oregon Lottery is our state’s No. 2 performer.
It’s the second-largest source of revenue in our state after your income taxes. The video poker machines, scratchers and draw games generated $1.35 billion for Oregon in fiscal year 2019. That was an increase of 3.5 percent over 2018 and the legalization of sports wagering opened an opportunity that the Oregon Lottery felt it was well positioned to capitalize upon in 2020.
Lawmakers like to spend that revenue. They’d probably like to have even more money in the next budget cycle. Except, they’ve drawn the line at college wagering. It’s a strange hill to die on. Any regular Oregonian can drive to one of the tribal sportsbooks, for example, and bet on an NCAA football game. And now, with the Oregon Lottery’s Scoreboard app you’re about to be able to wager on virtual horse races (really random-number generators), but you still can’t bet on Ohio State vs. Oregon or Oregon State vs. Oklahoma State without involving Chinook Winds or another tribal sportsbook.
A few months ago I went in dizzy circles with Peter Courtney over the issue. He’s a state senator and president of the Oregon Senate. I happen to appreciate and like Courtney. He’s intelligent and cares deeply about our state. He’s dedicated his working life to the public. He’s also a big sports fan. More specifically, a huge Patriots fan who adores Tom Brady. But in debating the notion of Oregon’s lawmakers lifting the ban on college wagering, I couldn’t gain a yard against him.
Sen. Courtney told me in March that the issue was a non-starter. He wanted athletes to get paid before he’d consider supporting wagering on their games. I argued that without the ability to offer wagering on college football and the NCAA Tournament, the Oregon Lottery couldn’t maximize profitability and be successful. It was essentially hamstrung.
“How about I don’t care if the Lottery app is successful? I don’t give a rip. I’m not particularly crazy about gambling. But I don’t give a rip. I don’t give a rip,” Sen. Courtney told me in early March. “You take care of that student-athlete first and then… then we’ll talk about gambling.”
Six weeks later, there was movement.
The NCAA’s Board of Governors supported rule changes to allow student-athletes to receive compensation for third-party endorsements. It’s not pay for play from the NCAA, but athletes in college are now free to navigate the open market, be compensated, and also retain their eligibility.
Maybe it will soon change. But as it stands, the Scoreboard app won’t allow users to wager on college games. No bets on next season’s College Football Playoffs. No men’s or women’s NCAA basketball tournaments. But once the live sporting events begin again, you will be a able tto wager on MLB, NBA, darts, cricket, badminton or International basketball. Or you could drive to a tribal sportsbook in our state and bet on a college game.
That still seems silly to me.
But now, it’s about to get more absurd. Because the Oregon Lottery Scoreboard is going to soon be able to offer those virtual sporting events — a dreamed up go-kart race, for example, born from a computer program that generates random numbers and offers a result.
I won’t watch. Don’t care who wins a fake sporting event. But I know this, if the college-sports wagering ban isn’t lifted, the Oregon Lottery Scoreboard is virtually a spectator itself.
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