What US Online Poker Needs Next: Operators Expanding into West Virginia What US Online Poker Needs Next: Operators Expanding into West Virginia

West Virginia has been, until just recently, a frustration for the US online poker industry and for online poker players as a whole.

The frustration is rooted in the fact that while there has been legal online poker in West Virginia since 2019, it has been unavailable to players. The reason for this is simple: None of the gaming operators currently live in the state for online casino gaming and sports betting have been offering it.

Why? Well, since West Virginia is a small state (it only ranks 40th in population with 1.8 million residents), operators are loathe to launch there — that is, unless the state were to join a multi-state gaming compact for online poker. Compounding the issue is that while the regulator expressed interest in joining such a compact, it wouldn’t ask to join one unless an operator said it was interested in offering multi-state poker.

That’s been the subject of several articles on pokerfuse, including this very series — now in its fifth installment. Indeed, while parts one and four of this series have focused on other important issues, parts two and three made the case that the next thing US online poker could really use is for more states to join MSIGA — with West Virginia at the top of that list.

All of this changed on November 14, 2023. That’s the day West Virginia officially joined MSIGA. Frustration over!

Or is it? Because now comes a new issue, and the subject of this installment of the series — West Virginia needs online poker operators to expand their existing networks and launch in the state.

  • What It Is: Operators launching online poker in West Virginia.
  • Why It Matters: Once operators launch, West Virginians will be able to play against players in other states. The shared liquidity from such play will lead to bigger prize pools and increased competition, which in turn will drive product innovation.
  • Who Benefits: Literally everyone — players, operators and regulators. Online poker generates additional tax revenue for states.
  • Who Has Done It Thus Far: No operators have launched yet, but we expect there will be up to four operators.
  • Why They Haven’t Done It Yet: Operators have been waiting for West Virginia to join a compact for multi-state poker. Now that the state has done that, look for operators to finally launch.
  • Likelihood of It Happening in 2024: 4.5/5. Seems like a sure thing.

What Needs to Happen?

West Virginia needs online poker operators. The good news is that several operators are already live in the state with online casino gaming and sports betting.

BetMGM is the most obvious candidate — it runs an online casino and a sportsbook tethered to the land-based license of the private Greenbriar Resort. It also has online poker rooms in Michigan and New Jersey. A launch in West Virginia would be an attractive option for BetMGM, but it’s not likely to happen until after the operator combines those player pools in Michigan and New Jersey — which, coincidentally, is the subject of part one of this series.

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Another likely market entrant is PokerStars, which doesn’t currently have a partnership with a land-based casino in West Virginia but has plenty of options. It should be noted that while PokerStars and FanDuel are both brands owned by Flutter Entertainment, state law prohibits them from sharing FanDuel’s market access through a separate partnership with Greenbriar.

It should also be noted that BetMGM and PokerStars issued separate statements applauding West Virginia for joining MSIGA, with the latter going so far as to say it would review its options there. Both are signs that the two operators are serious about launching in the state.

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WSOP and Rush Street Interactive (RSI) could also be interested in offering online poker in West Virginia, but both would first need to enter into partnerships with one of the state’s five land-based casinos. State law allows each casino to have three igaming skins. RSI would deploy its Run It Once Poker platform, which it purchased in March 2022.

Two properties, Greenbriar and Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, already have three igaming partners. That leaves Mardi Gras Casino, Mountaineer Casino, and Wheeling Island Casino available for partnerships.

Moving forward, look for operators to make formal requests to the West Virginia Lottery to launch multi-state poker. The regulator is likely already prepared to conduct data integrity training and things of the like in advance of a new product launch. If launches in other igaming states is any guide, testing could take several weeks. A soft launch would follow and likely last a few days.

Why Is it Important?

US online poker needs more states to offer the game in order for it to thrive, and West Virginia could play a role in that.

MSIGA grew to include about 25.3 million people with West Virginia in the fold. The other four states in the compact are Delaware, Michigan, Nevada, and New Jersey. While West Virginia is smaller than all but one of those states in terms of population, the compact did grow nearly 8% after the Mountain State joined.

West Virginia’s decision to join MSIGA could also motivate neighboring Pennsylvania to join the compact, too — see part two of this series. Since Pennsylvania has about 13 million residents, MSIGA’s total market would surge more than 51% to about 38.3 million people.

The land-based casinos in West Virginia should also benefit from the state joining MSIGA, as data from other states show brick-and-mortar facilities continue to grow with the addition of igaming.

Why Hasn’t It Happened Yet?

As mentioned at the start, West Virginia’s path to multi-state poker has been torturous. Before the state joined MSIGA, conversations about an expansion of US online poker overall seemed premature.

Gaming operators have not been interested in launching online poker in West Virginia to date because of its small population. Without membership in a compact like MSIGA, the state becomes a segregated market unattractive to operators.

In a nutshell, without shared liquidity, offering poker in West Virginia was more trouble than it was worth.

It’s possible that the pandemic may have delayed multi-state poker, although by the same token it helped get online casino gaming rolling. That’s because the pandemic forced brick-and-mortar casinos to close, prompting emergency regulations from the West Virginia Lottery Commission (WCLC) to move forward with online casino gaming in April 2020.

When Will it Happen?

Considering a quick turn of events at the end of the year — West Virginia joining MSIGA, PokerStars and BetMGM issuing separate congratulations to the state for making that move, and BetMGM stating in a business update that an announcement on shared liquidity was “imminent” — online poker could be available in West Virginia soon.

BetMGM likely wouldn’t have said a launch was imminent if that meant several quarters down the road, so movement in late Q4 2023 or anytime in Q1 2024 seems likely. Also, Q1 2024 is the quarter that RSI has touted as the time when it will launch Run It Once Poker.

However, there is no guarantee that BetMGM and RSI will go live in WV at the start of their shared liquidity efforts; they may focus on more important states (New Jersey and Michigan) before integrating into smaller states (WV and, in the case of RSI, Delaware). Launching in Nevada could also take priority.

Unless Pennsylvania joins MSIGA before then, look for PokerStars to launch in West Virginia and create a three-state network with Michigan and New Jersey. The operator likely needs to form a partnership with a local casino, but no there’s reason this would be a long process. We expect an expansion from PokerStars into West Virginia in the first half of next year.

WSOP/888, however, seems less likely to expand into smaller states. They are losing market access in Delaware, and the lack of updates with their software clients and apparent disinterest in expanding their US network into Michigan, indicate less focus in expanding their US online poker footprint. A launch in 2024 seems unlikely.