Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made his most amenable assessment of legal sports betting when describing it to the USA Today network as “just really a form of entertainment.”
The governor’s stance on legal gambling has evolved over the past three years, moving from opposition to all forms of gambling expansion to an interest in resort casinos. In that time, though, he had never shown support for sports betting.
A legal Texas sports betting market, by all estimations, would quickly become the largest in the nation, and many high profile Texans, including former Gov. Rick Perry, have thrown their support behind legalization efforts.
Abbott’s recent statement is far from a ringing endorsement, but it could suggest that the governor’s reading the room and has seen that efforts by the likes of the Texas Sports Betting Alliance have had a positive influence on the state Legislature while the push for legalizing casinos has stalled.
Sports betting legislation pieces falling into place
One of the biggest hurdles to legalizing sports betting has been the (lack of) support of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
As the leader of the Texas Senate, Patrick has tremendous influence. He sets committees, serves on multiple committees, controls the flow of floor debate, and provides general input on the legislative direction of the session.
Patrick told the Chad Hasty Show of KFYO-AM in Lubbock in 2021 that sports betting legislation would “never see the light of day.”
Leading into the 2023 legislative session, his stance softened a touch as he told KXAN-TV in Austin that he had seen “no movement” from Republican senators on gaming legislation. While not the outward condemnation of two years prior, Patrick showed no interest in shaping a positive outlook on sports betting for the incoming legislature.
At the time, no sports betting legislation had been filed – by a republican or otherwise. That situation has changed.
Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, has filed two pieces of legislation (Senate Bill 715 and Senate Joint Resolution 39) and has a Republican co-sponsor in state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, in the Texas House. Kolkhorst is a longtime friend and supporter of the lieutenant governor.
Patrick now has reason to believe that Senate Republicans are moving on sports betting, including a friend in Kolkhorst, giving him legitimate incentives to seriously consider sports betting legislation for the first time.
Further Republican endorsement from Speaker of the House Dade Phelan gives legal sports betting support from the top of both chambers of the Texas Legislature.
Online sports betting option avoids splintering that may stymie casino bills
In speaking with PlayTexas in January, Cara Gustafson, public relations director for the Texas Sports Betting Alliance, explained that SB 715, which the alliance helped draft, “intentionally specifies online-only sports betting,” as that is the option they believe Patrick and other Republicans are most likely to entertain.
Some rationale for the online-only focus is the connection that retail sports books have with casinos, which anti-gaming advocates see as dangerous for Texas communities.
The online-only option also delineates SB 715 and SJR 39 from casino legislation, such as that filed by Sen. Carol Alvarado (Senate Joint Resolution 17), which would legalize retail sports betting along with resort casinos.
In 2021, the Las Vegas Sands PAC endorsed Alvarado, who filed a nearly-identical piece of casino legislation. This year, they have withdrawn their support and thrown it behind Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who has filed competing casino and retail sports betting legislation.
This shifting of support is certainly detrimental if not terminal for Alvarado’s legislation, which didn’t make it out of committee last session. But by splintering casino support amongst legislators, it may not bode well for Geren, either.
At the moment, Kolkhorst’s online sports betting legislation stands alone with the full support of all major Texas sports teams and other high-profile Texans such as Perry and Houston Rockets Owner Tilman Fertitta.
Abbott changes tack on resort casinos
Abbott previously supported Alvarado’s casino legislation, claiming that he would be interested in “professional entertainment options for Texans,” but he seems to have changed tack with his recent comments.
He said that while he didn’t want to see “slot machines at every corner,” upscale resorts were another story.
Now, he appears more preoccupied with the ubiquity of small-scale gambling venues. In his USA Network interview, he stated that casino legislation “was not DOA” but, “we can’t have a system that takes money out of the hands of people who need to be able to pay their bills and buy their food and have them lose out on gambling, where they then need to depend upon the state.”
Why this sentiment applies to casinos and not sports betting was not addressed in the interview. However, Abbott seems content to label casino gambling as a system that robs Texans of their livelihood while sports betting is “just entertainment.”
He clarified, “and so it depends on how [sports betting’s] constructed. And we’ll see how far it can advance in the House and Senate.”
Seen in this light, his recent comments seem less a condemnation of casinos and more an interpretation of the state of gambling legislation in the weeks leading up to committee hearings.