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Maryland regulators Thursday approved a staggered online sports betting launch, opening the door for the state’s first legal mobile books to go live by year’s end.

The Sports Wagering Application Review Commission (SWARC) voted unanimously to approve sportsbooks on a rolling basis. This will allow licensed sportsbooks to start taking bets once qualified instead of waiting for a predetermined go-live date.

The state’s mobile sportsbook application window closes Oct. 21 and regulators then have 45 days to approve licensees. Multiple sportsbooks are believed to have already applied and Thursday’s vote could allow regulators to approve operators shortly after the license window closes.

Each online sportsbook will need to pass independent lab certification, among a host of other qualifications, but it now appears the first legal mobile books could go live by November or December. This would allow at least some operators to catch the tail-end of the lucrative NFL regular season and all of the ensuing playoffs, including the Super Bowl.

Maryland’s 2021 sports betting law allows up to 60 statewide mobile operators, the highest cap of any state. None have more than 30 live sportsbooks currently and it seems highly unlikely that Maryland comes close to that 60-operator threshold; there are less than 60 operating brands total across the entire country.

The rolling approval process would seem to advantage larger brands that are more familiar with the regulatory testing and review process in other states. US market share leaders such as FanDuel, BetMGM and Caesars, which already opened retail sportsbooks in Maryland, would seem to be among the likeliest books to launch first.

Barstool, PointsBet and BetRivers also operate retail Maryland sportsbooks and should be well positioned to launch early. DraftKings, another US market share leader, is set to open a retail book next year and is another leading candidate to launch early. Maryland’s large operator cap also would position growing brands such as Betr, bet365 and BetFanatics to enter the state.

Thursday’s decision is the latest online sports betting launch accelerant in what has been, until recently, a long and frustrating process.

Maryland voters technically approved mobile sports betting via a November 2020 ballot measure. Lawmakers approved follow-up regulations in May 2021, but no online book has been cleared to launch.

Both the 2020 referendum and the ensuing legislation required state regulators to evaluate minority, women and small-business ownership stakes when considering sports betting licenses. Regulators undertook a disparity study to evaluate these conditions, a months-long undertaking that further delayed the process.

The 2021 law also created the SWARC as another regulatory body in addition to the existing Maryland Lottery and Gaming Commission. Both organizations have to sign off on certain sports betting approvals, further delaying what is already a complex and arduous regulatory process.

Under increasing pressure from elected officials including Gov. Larry Hogan – as well as Maryland sports bettors – regulators completed several key steps in quick succession over the past few weeks. The next major move will be to award licenses, after which operators will be virtually cleared to start accepting bets.

By not forcing all sportsbooks to wait for a certain date, a practice common in many other states, Maryland will allow the better-prepared operators to begin taking wagers shortly after final approvals.

Assuming a November launch, Maryland will have gone roughly 18 months between legalization bill signing to first online bet, far and away the longest such timeline of the more than 20 states with legal mobile wagering. The US average is about nine months, and Kansas completed the process earlier this year in just over three.

Maryland’s first retail books opened late last year but are expected to make up less than 10% of the state’s total sports betting handle once mobile wagering goes live.

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