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March Madness sports betting big business in Illinois, but Bally’s Chicago remains on the sidelines

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS

March Madness tipped off this week with a record $2.72 billion expected to be legally wagered on the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, according to the American Gaming Association.

A lot of that money will be wagered in Illinois, the third-largest sports betting market in the U.S. None of that money, however, will run through Bally’s Chicago, the city’s first casino, which has yet to open its promised sportsbook.

Earlier this month, Bally’s Chicago pulled down its sportsbook signage from a designated location on the third floor of the temporary casino at Medinah Temple, with no timetable for its launch.

“We will continue to evaluate and plan for a retail sports betting area within the casino,” Mark Wong, vice president and general manager of Bally’s Chicago, said in a statement.

While Bally’s Chicago remains on the sidelines, there are a growing number of ways — in Illinois and beyond — to participate in March Madness action, which has evolved in recent years from office pools to ubiquitous online betting.

Sports betting is legal in 38 states and Washington, D.C., with basketball-crazy North Carolina going live earlier this month just in time for March Madness, which tops the Super Bowl for athletic wagering events.

“It is the largest sports betting moment on the calendar here in the U.S., simply due to the fact that you have 134 games across 18 days,” said Joe Maloney, AGA senior vice president.

The vast majority of money is bet on the men’s tournament, but the women’s tournament is drawing increased attention, in large part because of the emergence of collegiate superstar Caitlin Clark of Iowa, who recently broke the 54-year-old NCAA career scoring record of Pete Maravich.

The men’s 68-team field includes return appearances by Northwestern and Illinois, which should boost local interest. The state now has 13 retail locations to place bets, including the most recent, DraftKings Sportsbook at Wrigley Field, which opened March 8.

There are also eight online sportsbooks operating in Illinois, which account for 97% of sports wagering in the state.

But six months after opening its temporary casino at Medinah Temple, Bally’s Chicago not only isn’t in the game, it hasn’t applied for its sports wagering license with the Illinois Gaming Board.

The casino plans to repurpose the designated sportsbook space for its highest-rolling gamblers.

“In response to customer feedback, we are converting the once-earmarked sports betting area to a VIP Services, where we can provide enhanced, convenient financial and players club services to our valued VIP customers,” Wong said.

Bally’s launched a retail sportsbook at its Quad Cities casino in December, but has yet to offer its online Bally Bet sports app in the state. The app is expected to go live in Illinois later this year.

Illinois online sportsbooks are all associated with retail locations — casinos, racetracks and sports venues — across the state. The state has twice failed to award an online-only license at a steeper $20 million fee.

When Illinois approved sports wagering in 2019 as part of a sweeping gambling expansion bill, customers needed to sign up at a bricks-and-mortar sportsbook to bet online. But that in-person registration requirement was eliminated in 2022, opening the floodgates for the untethered downstate sportsbooks to woo Chicago-area customers.

FanDuel, which is associated with the Fairmount Park horse racing track near St. Louis, and DraftKings, which is partnered with the Casino Queen in East St. Louis, are the state’s two highest-grossing sportsbooks.

Illinois launched sports betting at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines in March 2020, just days before it was shut down and the March Madness tournament was canceled by the pandemic. Four years later, sports betting is booming in Illinois.

In 2023, Illinois sportsbooks generated more than $1 billion in adjusted gross revenue — the money kept after winnings are paid out — ranking third behind New York and New Jersey, according to the AGA.

Illinois gamblers legally bet $11.6 billion on sporting events last year, according to the Illinois Gaming Board.

Nationwide, sports gamblers legally wagered nearly $120 billion last year, according to the AGA. March Madness represents about 2.2% of the total sports betting handle.

If projections play out, that would put the over/under on legal March Madness betting in Illinois at about $255 million this year.

Even Gov. J.B. Pritzker is getting in on the fun, posting his politically correct bracket Thursday on X, formerly Twitter. Not surprisingly, he is picking Illinois and Northwestern to meet in the Elite Eight, and the Fighting Illini to win the men’s championship.

The women’s championship game is scheduled for April 7, while the men’s winner will be crowned April 8.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com