Ohioans are gambling away their hard-earned money at warp speed.
In 2023, the first year of legalized sports betting in Ohio, more than $7.5 billion was wagered through apps and bricks-and-mortar sportsbooks.
The amount shattered expectations.
In 2021, Ohio’s Legislative Budget Office forecast that “after several years of operation” sports gambling would total $3.35 billion annually – an amount reached in only five months.
The Super Bowl, on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas, will be a monster. Predicted total wagers: $20 billion. Among states, Ohio’s bets will rank among the top 10.
In addition to their $7.5 billion in sports wagering last year, Ohioans bet roughly $10 billion on traditional casino games and nearly $6 billion on Ohio Lottery games.
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Today’s widespread embrace of gambling would astonish those who built and led Ohio during its first 170 years of statehood.
History of gambling in Ohio
In territorial days, before Ohio became the 17th state in 1803, gambling peddlers schemed to empty the pockets of pioneers.
So, in 1805, the legislature passed a law “for the prevention of certain immoral practices.” It prohibited any type of gambling “under any pretense whatever, for money or any other article of value, and betting thereon.”
Ohio history: Ohio’s gaming industry timeline
In 1807, the legislature outlawed any private lottery without a specific act of the legislature. In 1814, it prohibited all forms of gambling that took on a “game” aspect.
The legislature occasionally authorized a lottery for a specific purpose, such as building a courthouse or bridge, or securing a bank. But many hawkers ignored the law or sought clever ways around it. So, in 1830, the General Assembly prohibited all lotteries.
The prohibition was written into the 1851 Ohio Constitution: “Lotteries and the sale of lottery tickets for any purpose whatsoever shall forever be prohibited in this state.”
Only lotteries were constitutionally prohibited. Other types of gambling were addressed through statutes.
The legislature sometimes saw merit in legalizing long-established forms of gambling. For example, in 1933 it created the Ohio State Racing Commission to regulate horse racing and legalize pari-mutuel wagering.
In 1943, in a nod to churches, veterans’ groups and other nonprofits, the legislature removed criminal penalties on games of chance conducted for charitable purposes.
The first major step toward large-scale, legalized gambling occurred May 8, 1973, when Ohioans approved a state constitutional amendment to create the Ohio Lottery. It passed easily, with 64% of the vote. Ohio became the 10th state to operate a lottery.
The fight for gambling in Ohio
State Sen. Ron Mottl, D-Parma, the primary sponsor, said Ohio was losing up to $30 million a year its citizens were spending on out-of-state lottery tickets. “Ohioans want to gamble – let them do it here,” he said.
His argument still echoes.
In November 1975, Ohioans approved another gambling amendment – permitting charitable bingo subject to regulations set by the legislature. It won 54% of the vote.
By the 1990s, nine states had joined Nevada and New Jersey in legalizing casino gambling. Between 1990 and 2008, Ohioans voted down four different casino plans sponsored by private interests. Given the stakes, casino proposals would continue coming unless the legislature pre-empted them by crafting its own plan, as with the lottery.
By 2009, four of Ohio’s border states allowed casinos, racinos or both. As social mores on gambling continued easing, Ohioans appeared ready to approve casinos, again on the argument of keeping gambling revenues in-state.
In November 2009, Ohioans voted 53-47 to authorize casinos in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo, with a tax of 33% on gross casino revenue.
However, the real tsunami was unleashed in May 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law that banned commercial sports betting in most states.
The ruling triggered a state-by-state race to legalize sports betting.
In 2021, the Ohio legislature overwhelmingly (Senate, 31-0; House, 91-2) approved legislation permitting sports betting in all of Ohio’s casinos, racinos and professional sports venues, as well as on 18 online sports books and kiosks in hundreds of bars and restaurants. Ohio is one of 38 states to have legalized sports betting.
Now professional sports teams, and even some university athletics departments, have deals with online sportsbooks to encourage betting and share the profits.
Buried within the Ohio law on sports betting is creation of an 11-member Commission on the Future of Gaming in Ohio.
It is required to submit a report with recommendations by June 30, 2024. Then it is required to go away.
Mike Curtin is a career newspaperman with 38 years at the Columbus Dispatch followed by four years in the Ohio House (2013-2016).