Arizona House Bill Would Guarantee Turf Paradise a Mobile Sports Betting License

Arizona House Bill Would Guarantee Turf Paradise a Mobile Sports Betting License
Fact Checked by Michael Peters

A bill proposed by an East Valley Republican member of the state legislature would give the green light for Phoenix horse racing track Turf Paradise to fulfill its long-time interest in an  Arizona sports betting apps license.

Arizona House Bill 2732, which is sponsored by Rep. David Cook (R, 7th District), would allow the horse track at the corner of 19th Avenue and Bell Road to score a full event wagering license, more than two years after the Arizona Department of Gaming denied its application for one.

Back in August 2021, the ADG ruled Turf Paradise, along with USL franchise Phoenix Rising Football Club, did not meet the standards of what a professional sports team entails, opting to leave the final two licenses for non-tribal entities unfilled. The track was unsuccessful in challenging that decision through the court system.

In January 2024, the ADG announced it would take applications for the two available pro sports licenses as well as an open tribal license. The application window begins Friday and closes March 4.

“The application window for event wagering licenses will open on Feb. 16, 2024, and will close on March 4, 2024 at 5 p.m.,” the ADG’s statement from January read. “Applicants must submit their completed applications within this timeframe in order to be considered for a license. ADG will thoroughly evaluate all applications received based on the established criteria pursuant to the State’s event wagering rules and statutes.”

A representative from the ADG declined to comment on HB-2732 or how the bill might impact the department’s looming sports betting licensing window.

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What Does Arizona HB-2732 Entail?

Cook’s bill takes direct aim at the ADG’s past decision regarding Turf Paradise, changing one of the statutes regarding what constitutes a “sports facility” to include the following: “And one location that hosted racing meetings in 2023 in a county with a population of more than four million persons.”

That addition is explicitly for the Phoenix track, as Maricopa County is the only location in Arizona with more than 1.1 million residents. It has a population of 4,430,871 according to the 2020 Census. Pima County, with a population of 1,042,393, is the next closest in size.

Another statute in HB-2732 is even more explicit in who the bill seeks to give a license to, reading: “An owner of an Arizona professional sports team or franchise, an operator of a sports facility in this state that hosts an annual tournament on the PGA tour, a promoter of a national association for stock car auto racing national touring race in this state or a horse racing permittee that is located in a county with a population of more than four million persons and that conducted racing meetings in 2023.”

When asked for comment on his Arizona sports betting bill and why Cook sought to pass it now, with the ADG about to open another licensing window, the fifth term Republican representative told BetArizona.com the legislation would ensure true equity in the state’s sports betting scene.

“Several years ago we passed (I was on commerce) what we called “the gaming bill.” In that it authorized the governor to issue 10 (professional) sports betting licenses after setting up an application process. This was done and eight were issued,” Cook said in an emailed statement.

“A horse racing track applied for one and was denied. That went to state court and the court ruled that they could be denied because they were not a ‘franchise.’ Horse racing is the oldest sport in AZ. There is already parimutuel betting on site and from other tracks and races by racing signal. This bill is to statutorily allow horse racing to be eligible to receive one in the future — there is no need for them to apply under current law.”

Industry insiders, such as B Global managing partner Brendan Bussmann, aren’t sure why Rep. Cook and his colleagues are talking about changing the language for sports betting licenses now.

“Horse racing was contemplated in the original bill that sought input from several stakeholders when sports betting was originally passed,” Bussmann said. “They have had their bite at the apple then and it did not pass muster. I am not sure why we are going back and trying to put the square peg in the round hole.”

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Turf Paradise Ready to Expand Wagering

Vincent Francia, who is the general manager of the Phoenix horse racing stalwart, told BetArizona.com on Thursday the track is ready to expand on the limited event wagering license it has held since January 2022.

Limited event licenses only allow holders to conduct retail sports betting, while full licenses allow for both retail and online betting. Turf Paradise partnered with Unibet Arizona for its retail location, but Unibet has announced its plans to cease U.S. operations in May.

“Turf Paradise, and actually the horse racing industry at large, has argued for many years that we are a sports franchise,” Francia told BetArizona.com. “We are the first of the franchises in the Valley, and that we should be considered that, that horse racing stands on its own and equally to sports, whether it be basketball or hockey or baseball or football all the other franchises in the Valley.

“Those franchises were awarded these type of licenses, and we feel that we should also be considered. So there's a thing of fairness. Secondly, is how it would affect us. The sports betting landscape here in Phoenix, I mean, we're doing it now, we've done it now for about a year. It's certainly a growing market. And the way we perceive it, it's only going to keep growing.”

The limited license, which granted Turf Paradise and its off-track betting partners retail sports betting, required licensees to submit a $1,000 application fee, in addition to a $1,000 initial license fee and a $5,000 annual renewal fee. The ADG can give out a maximum of 10 limited licenses.

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Arizona Sports Betting a Golden Opportunity

Francia sees a greener future for the race track, which faced questions over its immediate future after reports emerged in October that Turf Paradise would shut down and sell off the 252-acre facility to a California reality company. The track is still looking for a buyer who will commit to keeping the facility open.

Part of that outlook stems from Francia’s continued belief Turf Paradise will eventually gain access to the Arizona mobile sports betting market, which has generated more than $13.5 billion in handle and $639 million in gaming revenue since launching in September 2022.

“Arizona is a very strong [sports betting] state. So you'll have that component of both men and women. It's not just one or the other. And they like to bet on the sports activities,” Francia said. ”The most glaring, recent example of all of that is the Super Bowl that, of course, lest I forget. Taylor Swift certainly had something to do with attracting new fans to the sport of football, but no less so with sports betting here in Arizona, because the market is so young. My two children are in their 30s, and it's part of their way of life. And Turf Paradise would like to be part of that way of life because [sports betting is] a growing and emerging market here in this state.”

That access would allow Turf Paradise, which reported a total handle of $920,620.76 from its limited event wagering license during the ADG’s most recent report in November, to expand its wagering revenues in a major way.

To put that total in perspective, the smallest operator by handle in November (TwinSpires) reported a total of $168,831. Turf Paradise’s current limited event wagering partner Unibet, which operates online through a partnership with the Fort Yuma-Quechan Tribe, took in $983,242 in online handle. By comparison, market leader FanDuel Arizona had $249.3 million in online handle in November.

For now, Francia told BetArizona.com the track will be ready to roll whenever regulators give them the green light to open up shop with an Arizona mobile wagering partner, regardless of when that might be.

“Even if the bill were to pass today, we could not put it into effect tomorrow because there's a process with the state that we have to go through,” Francia said. “But, just getting it passed certainly would be a victory for us and the process which follows will comply with everything, we're familiar with it and will get it up operational as soon as possible.”

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Christopher Boan is the lead writer at BetArizona.com after covering sports and sports betting in Arizona for more than seven years, including stops at ArizonaSports.com, the Tucson Weekly and the Green Valley News.

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