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General Assembly set to approve sports gambling in Virginia as soon as this week - one last hurdle remains

Gamblers place their sporting-event bets at the Dover Downs Casino.

A conference committee in the General Assembly this week will attempt to clear the final hurdle needed to bring sports betting to Virginia.

The Virginia House and Senate passed bills authorizing gambling on sporting events, and the combined bill is expected to be signed into law. It would bring sports betting, both in person and online, to the commonwealth as soon as this fall.

The committee, consisting of three representatives and three senators, will sort out the differences between the bills. Most are minor — for example, whether to take a 15 or a 20 percent cut of profits from the companies authorized to conduct business in the state.

But one difference looms large. The House bill, introduced by Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax), would ban betting on games played by Virginia colleges, as well as ban in-game betting on all college sports.

The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William), would allow both things.

Both representatives believe their method provides the best safeguards against potential integrity issues.

Sickles said lawmakers received a letter jointly written by several school presidents requesting that there be no legal gambling on college sports, but specifically encouraging the ban on state sports.

“During the session, the people involved have been visited by UVA, and I think they’re speaking on behalf of Virginia Tech as well,” Sickles said.

He added: “The theory is that those young kids, you don’t want them subject to any kind of enticement [to change the outcome of a game].”

A Virginia Tech representative said the school “would not be in a position to comment on any pending legislation.”

McPike feels the best way to safeguard against point shaving and the like is to legalize and monitor the bets. He noted that even though it is illegal, many Virginians place bets on sporting events through offshore websites, or they place those bets in states that have legalized it.

“I’d rather have the transparency,” he said. “You get some sunlight on it.

“The technology that’s out there has a level of sophistication to where they can track the bets — geofence to make sure people aren’t across state lines, flag and identify odd bets, things like that. Providing some regulation around it is an important factor.”

The legislation from both chambers offers a number of safeguards — companies that take bets are required to report any suspicious activity to the Virginia Lottery, which will provide oversight, and employees, players and coaches of teams are not allowed to place bets.

If the differences can be resolved, the bill is expected to be signed into law. The lottery would immediately begin hiring supervisors and putting in a framework with the goal of allowing the first bets this fall, potentially as soon as Week 1 of the NFL season.

“That might be aggressive, but we’ll see what they can do,” McPike said.

Once in place, a study estimates that the state will take in an extra $50 million a year in revenue by 2024. Of that money, 2.5% will be set aside in the Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Fund.

The legislation is just one cog in an overhaul of Virginia’s stance on gambling, but Sickles believes legalizing sports betting is important.

“This is a $4 billion industry today in Virginia, and it’s being done offshore, illegally,” he said. “The state’s not raising any money for education needs or health care needs, things like that.”

He’s optimistic the committee will produce final legislation for the governor to sign.

“It’s going to happen,” he said.