When Did Illinois Legalize Sports Betting?

Illinois is full of sports fans. The Chicago Cubs, Bulls, and White Sox are all world-class brands, and the state is home to the NFL’s Chicago Bears. Naturally, then, it comes as no surprise that the state has also legalized sports betting. How did Illinois become the third state to allow for legal wagering? You may be wondering the same thing. Let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane.

Early Days

Although Illinois was a state long before it became a country, its history as a jurisdiction begins in 1837. That’s when the state officially gained its independence from its precursor, the United States of America. Illinois’ first constitution was adopted two years later and officially declared the state a “free state” that would allow for the “full privilege of worshiping God in a manner consistent with [the individual’s] own conscience.”[1] Sounds pretty tame, right? No one had ever said anything like that before. It wasn’t until 1870 that the state made its first major move toward instituting sports betting, when Gov. John Wentworth (a Republican) signed a bill into law that allowed for betting on horse races.[2] And even then, it was a modest law. Horse racing was the only legal wagering sport in the state until 1921, when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful for the government to prohibit citizens from wagering on virtually any sporting event they choose.[3]

A Changing Legal Climate

Since that historic decision, things have changed. In 1942, the state once again modified its constitution, allowing for the establishment of betting establishments.[4] It wasn’t until the 1970s, when the Supreme Court issued another landmark decision in the form of Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, that legalized sports betting outside of Nevada. The court ruled that states could authorize sports betting, as long as they did so within the parameters set by the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA).[5]

Murphy set a precedent that has held up time and time again, establishing that PASPA preempted state bans on sports betting and that states could not enforce their prohibitions against sports betting.[6] The federal government has even gone so far as to provide guidelines for states that decided to allow for sports betting. According to the Department of Justice, states should only offer legal wagering on sporting events that receive a significant amount of attention from gamblers. The criteria is quite simple: the more people wagering on an event, the more likely it is to be considered a “sport.”[7]

Although Murphy established the precedent that led to the legalization of sports betting, it was actually PASPA’s “Anti-Gambling” provision that played a major role in its passage. That provision made it illegal for a state or its subdivisions to criminalize, restrict, or otherwise treat as unlawful any type of gambling. Thus, while it was once considered a mortal sin, tossing a few darts or pulling a slot machine’s handle were no longer crimes in Illinois. However, the state’s love for the activity remained, so it passed a law allowing for the creation of “racinos”—venues where individuals could legally gamble. Several other states have also adopted similar legislation, and today, more than half of the country allows for some type of legal gambling, with most states having some type of “racino” venue.

A Rising Tide Of Support

In recent years, interest in legalized sports betting has grown significantly. Today, 70% of Americans support some type of sports gambling, and a whopping 90% of Republicans favor it.[8] It would be a major blow to the sports world if legalized sports betting were to be banned. After all, it’s a practice that many people enjoy and that many consider to be an essential part of the game. And, in an odd twist, a large percentage of those people believe that PASPA should be voided, effectively removing the law that prohibits states from legalizing sports betting.

On March 4, 2021, as the nation grappled with the coronavirus pandemic, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the state’s judicial branch to consider the issue of PASPA’s potential invalidity. Even more surprisingly, the Democratic-controlled Illinois Senate followed suit on March 24, becoming the first legislative body in the country to do so. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (a Democrat) later signed the resolution into law, effectively removing the 40-year ban on sports betting in the state. The Illinois Supreme Court is currently reviewing the legislation. If it stands, Pritzker’s executive order will remove the 25-year ban on sports betting in the state, allowing for both legal and illegal gambling activity.

How Did Illinois Get Its Name?

You may be wondering, given all of this talk of banning and legalizing, how Illinois came to be known as “the Prairie State.” It was actually named after Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. While touring the western part of his native Virginia in 1802, Jefferson noticed the vast expanses of prairie, comparing them to the fields he was familiar with in his home state. As he gazed upon the boundless, open spaces, the future father of our nation supposedly exclaimed, “Oh how I love to get away from the city into a prairie, free and easy living!” Of course, Jefferson did not actually say this, but the story goes that he did and that his love for the open plains helped establish the state that would become his adopted home. There are also those who believe that the founding father of our country was a huge football fan who often bet on the games he watched. Some sources claim that he wagered heavily on games involving “Big Jim” Morrison and that this may have been the basis for his interest in western expansion.[9]

The point is that Jefferson and his contemporaries would have felt right at home in the Land of Lincoln. The sixteenth president was among the first to recognize the significance of legalized sports betting in the country, penning a letter to a friend in 1873 in which he stated, “It opens up a wide field for philanthropy, & for every kind of good work.” More than a century later, the pendulum has swung back, and the state is eager to get in on the action as well.