1 million Texans place illegal sports wagers totaling more than $5 billion a year, research shows

Adam Winkler Image
Friday, February 11, 2022
How close is Texas to legalizing mobile sports betting?
Legalized gambling faces stiff opposition in Texas, but what's standing in the way? Several high-ranking state officials and some donors with deep pockets.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Sports betting is expanding to many facets of our lives, and it's definitely in the places you consume live sports. But, one spot gambling is most definitely not found in is Texas. At least not legally.

Research shows, one million Texans place illegal sports wagers totaling more than $5 billion a year. Could all that dough make a difference? You bet, but some people aren't willing to chance it.

At the Dyslexia School of Houston, founder Tammy Spencer works with young children in special need of closing a literacy gap.

"Having him work one-on-one with Tammy is a way for us to catch him back up to where we feel like had he been identified earlier," explained Lauren DeFrehn.

DeFrehn's 7-year-old son, Luke, is one of the students in Spencer's tuition-based program. Kelsey Gates has two children in the school. Both moms are there because they said our state's public school system lacks resources for students with learning disabilities.

"So one of the things that I realized on this journey is that we have the answers for my problems," Gates revealed. "We've had them for a long time. Most of my life, we have known the science of reading."

"Almost every family I know is also doing private tutoring," DeFrehn said. "A lot of that is because they can't get enough of what the budgets allow at the schools."

But in a matter of months, special education funding could be in for a big boost from sports betting.

Last summer, State Representative Dan Huberty of Humble filed House Bill 2070, which would have allowed Texans to vote on a constitutional amendment to legalize sports gambling. It received a hearing but never got out of the committee.

"This is a completely dedicated source of revenue towards funding of special education period, full stop," Huberty said. "It has to percolate a little bit. It's kind of like your Keurig. You know, the first cup of coffee in the morning that you plug in, you're like, 'God, why does it take so long?'"

Like a strong cup of Joe, the sports gambling bill is now getting a jolt, despite Huberty retiring in 2023.

Cara Gustafson with the Sports Betting Alliance, a coalition of Texas sports teams, is aggressively pushing to legalize mobile sports betting at their next opportunity in the Lone Star State.

"We plan on coming to session with a piece of legislation that is supported by both sides of the aisle, both chambers and leadership, so we can get it to the November ballot," Gustafson said.

The Texans, who back in August, signed Caesars as their official casino partner, are part of the Alliance. Greg Grissom, the team president, knows many of his franchise's fans may oppose gambling.

"We respect the different viewpoints," Grissom pointed out. "And, I would say it's been well received in the 27 states who have also passed the legislation in a way that is respectful of all viewpoints. Our goal is to just engage fans at all different levels for all different reasons, across all demos, different demographics and legalized sports betting gives us another opportunity to do that."

As Grissom mentioned, right now - sports gambling is legal in more than two dozen states. By the time our Texas legislature reconvenes in 2023, that number may be in the 40s. Another significant number? The big revenue gambling could generate here.

"I think our target in the first year was over $100 million," Huberty said. "One-hundred dollars to $150 million and then growing it up to $500 million. This is the opportunity to take advantage of what I would see as money that's laying on the ground. It can be then dedicated towards a very specific purpose."

But, no matter the dedicated cause - education, public health, lower property taxes - legalized gambling faces stiff opposition in Texas. What's standing in the way? Several high-ranking state officials and some donors with deep pockets.

Rob Kohler represents the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and said he is not concerned about perceived momentum to green-light betting.

"This idea hasn't been received well," Kohler said. "We don't think that having this type of activity on the phones sends a good message to our youth. When the lights come on and the people that are elected come in to Austin, and they really vet it for whether the state needs to be in that business - it's something that ought to stay in Vegas."

Vegas, where gambling is currently legal and odds are available. So what are the chances here, in Texas, we soon see sports betting get the go-ahead?

"I think there's a better than 50-50 chance of getting it out of the committee, getting it to the floor. At least I'm talking on the house side," Huberty said. "It is a stream revenue that will be dedicated, and will be important and will really help kids."

Kids raised by moms like Gates and DeFrehn, whom both told ABC13 they'd have no issue with their children benefitting from gambling revenues.

"To me, that doesn't raise any problems at all," DeFrehn said.

"Whether or not the public gets to see any benefit from that revenue is the question I think we're asking," Gates said.

That is far from the only answer needed as the quest continues to legalize sports gambling in Texas.

The Sports Betting Alliance is in the preliminary stages of drafting what it calls the "perfect piece" of legislation, a bill that would have bipartisan support in both chambers during the 2023 session. Their goal is to get it passed and on the ballot in November of 2023. Then, if statewide voters approve the constitutional amendment - mobile sports gambling could go live as early as Jan. 1, 2024.

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