HELENA — Sports Bet Montana is doing well, according to the Montana Lottery, which runs the sports wagering service, despite its unusual launch just before the COVID pandemic hit.
The program was billed as a significant moneymaker for the state when proposed to legislators, with sports betting estimated to raise $1.5 to $2 million in revenue to the state’s general fund and another $3 to $4 million for a school scholarship fund for science and technology learning. Yet the first year of the program would not see that level of returns anticipated, at no fault of Montana Lottery.
Sports Bet Montana officially launched March 11, 2020 with kiosks restricted to bars, restaurants, and casinos. That was the same day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic for COVID. Within the week, most professional sports had been canceled. By the end of the month, the state was under a stay-at-home order in an effort to slow the spread of COVID which limited the businesses to takeout only.
It would be months before restaurants, bars and casinos reopened for in-person services, with most professional sports returning by September.
So, how has Sports Bet Montana performed outside the pandemic closures?
According to data from Montana Lottery, from September 1, 2020, through August 31, 2021, 926,636 bets were made, totaling $44,467,549. The total payout to bettors was $38,865,448 (87.4%) with $5,602,101 (12.6%) going to gross gaming revenue.
Impressive numbers considering the Montana Lottery has done very little in terms of advertising or awareness because of the pandemic.
“To launch into an unexpected headwind like COVID, and still have the kinds of sales that we’re having. Sports betting is consistently our number two product in terms of sales, which to catch up to a 30 year run of successful lottery in a year’s time is pretty darn good,” said Montana Lottery Communication Manager Jennifer McKee.
McKee added the numbers are a pretty great indicator of the local desire for sports wagering.
There are 434 Sports Bet Montana retail locations across the state.
Currently, the state is holding events across the state at venues that offer the game to help educate the public about what it is and how to make bets.
“Most sports betting in the United State has been destination-oriented, even when it’s run by state lotteries, where you go to a place to do it,” McKee explained. “We were trying something different where the place you go to is your local bar, and we want a significant part of the economic benefit of that to stay at your local bar.”
From September 1, 2020, to August 31, 2021, around $2.6 million went back to those establishments as retailer commissions.
The average bet was $47.99, with 80 percent of the bets happening pre-game. As for what types of sports people in Montana are wagering on, basketball was number one at 32%, followed by baseball and football which were both at 21%. (Basketball - 32%, Baseball - 21%, Football - 21%, Soccer - 14%, Hockey - 5%, Tennis - 3%, Golf - 2%, MMA - 2%, Other <1%)
Sports Bet Montana isn’t the only legal way to put money down on games. Licensed gambling operators, such as bars and casinos, can offer sports pools and sports tab games which are regulated by the Montana Department of Justice rather than the Montana Lottery.
On March 25, 2021, Governor Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 193 into law which significantly changes that type of betting in the state. Previously, games were capped on how much a person could wager to enter, with a maximum $2,500 payout being possible. As of October 1, 2021, there is now no limit on what can be wagered in those games. Unlike Sports Bet Montana, the state doesn’t see a cut with the pool required to be paid out in full.