For Tina Hodges, and for the state of Tennessee, the gamble appears to have paid off.
Hodges is the president of Action 24/7, the only Tennessee-based online sports betting option among the state's nine gambling partners, and a startup operation going head-to-head with some of the biggest names in the gambling business.
Approved by the state legislature in 2019 and made available in November 2020, sports betting is a growing enterprise in Tennessee. It started with the state's regulatory commission working with four online partners, including Nashville-based Action 24/7, as well as national brands FanDuel, Draft Kings and BetMGM.
The online sports betting enterprise got off to a challenging start, with an original debate so divisive the legislation was passed in the largely Republican legislature without the signature of Gov. Bill Lee, also a Republican.
"During our first full year of operations, I was reminded frequently of the pains of starting from scratch and being the only sportsbook startup in Tennessee," Hodges says. "Startups are often at the mercy of others, from vendors to regulators. It's frustrating to not be able to provide a world-class experience for your customers from day one."
But the response, at least for Hodges and Action 24/7, has been overwhelmingly positive, she says.
"Our live events are so much fun," she says. "We host about 50 events each week across the state, from Johnson City to Dyersburg. We are still getting the word out that Action 24/7 is locally owned and operated. When people find out, they immediately sign up."
Her crew is not the biggest in a field that has grown to nine state-accepted online partners, but local over large has always been Action 24/7's selling point, Hodges says.
"Tennesseans are loyal and happy to support local brands when they can," says Hodges, who has added brick-and-mortar sites for deposits or cash-outs in various locales across Tennessee, including a couple in Chattanooga.
You Can Bet
Sports betting in Tennessee started Nov. 1, 2020, and the first few months were filled with record-setting per capita numbers. In addition, Tennessee's first full year witnessed the biggest brand across the American sports landscape getting fully vested in sports betting.
"2021 was the year the [National Football League] got completely into the sports betting game," ESPN gambling writer David Purdum says. "The league announced its first official sportsbook partners and then allowed sports betting commercials to air during games for the first time.
"The NFL put a cap on the number of sports betting ads that can air during a game, but we've gone from zero sportsbook commercials to six, which is in line with other categories like beer. Still, it's a drastic change."
It was not that long ago - think 2016 - when the commissioners of all the major sports leagues appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court to voice opposition to legalized sports betting. But the court ruled in favor of betting in 2018, and now it's legal in more than half of U.S. states, with changes on the horizon for some of the biggest states in the union.
"California, Texas and Florida will be big storylines in the coming years in regards to sports betting," Purdum says. "When those big states get going with sports betting, we're really going to see some massive growth."
New York launched legalized sports gambling in early January. The Action Network, a website based on gambling information, estimated that if New York had legalized sports betting after New Jersey's Supreme Court victory in 2018, New York could have collected an estimated $1.2 billion in taxes.
In Tennessee, the first three months of betting - November and December of 2020 and January 2021 - generated the most wagered per person of any state with online-only sports betting, according to TnBets.com, a website that tracks the betting industry in Tennessee and the country.
Tennessee's debut month generated more than $131 million in wagers, which crushed the previous debut-month high mark of $35.2 million bet in Indiana in September in 2019.
Bettors in Tennessee wagered $365.7 million in November 2021, which averages more than $12 million daily. That figure was down from $375.3 million in October but up almost 180% from November 2020.
The state collected $5.9 million in taxes - 20% from the revenue collected from online partners - last November alone. In the 13 full months from the start of sports betting in Tennessee, the state collected $41.4 million in taxes, 80% of which go to the department of education, 15% to local governments for infrastructure and 5% going to efforts to help combat mental health issues and substance abuse.
The Sports Wagering Advisory Council took over regulatory duties of sports betting in Tennessee, with the Tennessee Education Lottery serving in an advisory role. There will be more states legalized sooner rather than later and there will be more operators in Tennessee in the coming days, Hodges predicts.
Tennessee Cashing In on Sports Betting
November 2020:Wagered: $131.44 million / operator revenue: $13.22 millionDecember 2020:$180.9 million / $13.9 millionJanuary 2021:$211.3 million / $20.9 millionFebruary 2021:$176.3 million / $13 millionMarch 2021:$205.9 million / $18 millionApril 2021:$172.4 million / $15.5 millionMay 2021:$160.9 million / $15.4 millionJune 2021:$174.5 million / $18.3 millionJuly 2021:$144.6 million / $15.2 millionAugust 2021:$144.5 million / $13.2 millionSeptember 2021:$257.3 million / $25.6 millionOctober 2021:$375.3 million / $23.3 million
"Based on the meeting we've had, my best guess is that six to 10 new operators will join the market in Tennessee in 2022," she says.
That increased number will mean more options for players and more competition - and maybe even contraction - for some of the operators, Purdum says.
"Eventually, I believe we're going to see some consolidation," he says. "Right now, we have dozens of sportsbook operators. I'm not sure the market can sustain that many operators, so I think, at some point, we're going to see a consolidation of sportsbooks."
For Action 24/7, the focus will continue to be local, especially with growing interest and success of Tennessee and Vanderbilt baseball, Hodges says.
"In 2022, Action 24/7 will continue to offer Tennessee regional-specific wagering," Hodges says. "We created lines for the SEC baseball tournament, as well as some (state) boxing and MMA events, which our players loved.
"We listen to our players and we are working to offer what they want, like enhanced promotions with faster access to earned free bets and winnings."