The Montana State Lottery officially kicked off Sports Bet Montana this week, which will allow Montanans to place bets on games at about 180 locations around the state. But the rollout comes as many major sports and college leagues are suspending seasons and canceling events due to coronavirus.
Eric May owns the Bulldog Saloon in downtown Whitefish and he’s showing me two discreet black little boxes attached to the ceiling. The beacons will allow his customers to place bets on sports games through the Montana State Lottery’s mobile app or on a kiosk.
"I think the NFL is probabaly going to be the biggest draw, is the football. But NHL, NBA, the college basketball season that’s coming to March Madness, the major league baseball, those are going to be your top four or five things that people are going to want to bet on."
The 2019 Montana legislature passed a law making sports wagering legal in the state.
But there may not be much action when betting goes live here later this week as the NBA, NHL, and MLB suspend their seasons to varying degrees due to coronavirus. Major college sporting events are also being canceled.
"It’s kind of on hold. So, I’m not sure what kind of decisions are going to be made by the lottery," May says.
Montana Lottery spokesperson Jennifer McKee says about 24 locations were up and running Wednesday and bets are being placed. She says the system is designed to give customers refunds when events are canceled. McKee adds that despite most major sporting events in the U.S. coming to a halt, the lottery expects to finish its rollout by Sunday.
"We know that this is a product that people will like and it will pick back up when sporting picks back up."
Once that pickup happens, sports betting is expected to bring in $13 million to the state its first year. That number is expected to grow to $17 million in the next four years.