HELENA — Legal sports betting in Montana has not been performing as expected thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown.
Yet even with the shutdown, Sports Bet Montana has seen more than $5 million bet legally on sports this year.
Sports Bet Montana launched right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down. “We placed our terminals on the week of March 9 and by the end of that week major sports leagues were shutting down,” said Montana Lottery communication canager Jennifer McKee.
State law requires a liquor license in order to obtain a sports wagering license for the business, and bets can only be made in a licensed establishment. Internet gambling is illegal in Montana.
Bars, restaurants and casinos were shut down in Montana on March 15 due to COVID, effectively putting Montana sports wagering at a stand still.
“We placed our terminals and immediately there was no action,” said McKee. “Really though, we were no different than any other business in Montana. Every business in Montana, every person in Montana was affected by COVID and we were no different.”
As a result, the sports wagering has not brought in as much money as initially expected.
Yet even with the shutdown and their advertising completely halted, Sports Bet Montana has seen more than $5 million bet legally on sports this year.
McKee said it was still slow-going when taverns and casinos began to reopen in Montana.
“It was unusual,” said McKee. “MMA was having live events. Korean baseball was playing to no fans. So the sports that were offered were sports that Montanans and honestly most Americans didn’t know much about or have an interest in betting on.”
Sports Bet Montana really got their first solid hit with the return of Major League Baseball by July.
But nothing has compared to the forward momentum they made with the return of professional football.
For the opening weekend of the NFL, $189,000 was wagered on professional football in Montana. NFL alone represented 52% of the total money bet on sports in Big Sky County for the week of September 7 - 13. On Monday, September 14, $36,629 was bet on the Denver Broncos v.s. Tennessee Titans game.
“It was huge, and we knew it was going to be a big deal,” said McKee. “This is probably the most popular sport in Montana, so we knew football was going to be a big deal and it is. We’re so glad that it’s back.”
Montana Lottery says it’s hard to predict the future, especially during COVID, but they believe as the NFL season continues Montana will also continue to see growth in betting.
“We’re thinking that we’ll see $500,000 week and that will go up as we expand our retail base and the number of places people can place bets,” said McKee.
The sports book for Sports Bet Montana is managed by Intralot, an integrated gambling, transaction processing systems and sports betting company. Intralot is compensated for their services by a percentage of each bet made. When no bets were being made, Intralot wasn’t receiving any money for Sports Bet Montana. Intralot did still receive money for the other contracts they have with Montana Lottery regarding systems not associated with Sports Bet Montana.
Of the $5 million the Sports Bet Montana has brought in so far, $4.54 million has been paid out to winners. All of the money coming in and out of Sports Bet Montana is only from bets made in the state. The State takes 12 percent of the handle, total bets made, and then gives 6 percent of that back to the business where the sports wager was made. The remaining 6 percent goes to funding the State of Montana and STEM scholarships. As of September 16, more than $364,000 has gone to Montana businesses that offer sports wagering.
“Sports Bet Montana really was designed to benefit our small business partners,” said McKee. “We all see the value of it now as these businesses are working hard to be successful. We are really happy that Sports Bet Montana can be part of how they are successful.”
While business has come back in Montana, it’s not as if COVID never happened. Many Montanans have found themselves in difficult economic situations and taverns are not seeing anywhere near the same amount of customers as they had.
Montana Lottery is also not actively advertising Sports Bet Montana.
McKee says due to those factors the future of Sports Bet Montana is looking great, because the more than $5 million in bets that are happening is a result of people finding and learning how to bet all on their own.
“All of the growth that we’re seeing is word of mouth,” McKee explained. “We’re not running any ads and never did. There’s the whole product launch we’ve put on hold... Honestly, we’re very happy where we are right now.”
More information about Sports Bet Montana, including current odds, can be found here.