CINCINNATI — When the pandemic forced Rodrigo Williams to close his North College Hill bar, he put his construction company to work renovating Good Brothas Bar & Grill.
Now, he’s counting on sports betting kiosks to rebuild his customer base.
“As soon as we heard about it, we jumped on it,” said Williams, president of RWB Properties and Construction LLC. “I done traveled over to Indiana plenty of times to put a ticket in. So, we said, ‘Hey, you know what? Let’s do the research. Let’s find out what it takes to get a license.’”
That initiative made Williams the only black business owner in Hamilton County to claim a Type C sports gaming host license through two rounds of license approvals by the Ohio Casino Control Commission. Whether that’s a sign of racial disparity is difficult to say. That’s because the state of Ohio has yet to take any action on a racial disparity study required by House Bill 29, the December 2021 legislation that authorized sports betting in Ohio.
“The study is not required to be conducted prior to issuing licenses, or prior to the start of gaming in Ohio on Jan. 1,” wrote Melissa Vince, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, in an email response to questions from the WCPO 9 I-Team. “We believe the study is best conducted following the issuance of licenses when the independent consultant would have relevant information to consider in completing the study.”
That answer isn’t good enough for State Senator Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, who serves on the Senate’s Select Committee on Gaming.
“We want some action on this,” Thomas said. “If we are going to do this, we want to be very inclusive because there’s plenty to go around.”
Kiosk licenses require a two-step approval process by the Ohio Lottery Commission and casino control commission. Neither asked applicants whether their companies are minority-owned. So lottery officials can’t say what level of minority participation exists in the 1,376 companies pre-qualified for kiosks. The casino control commission doesn’t know how many minority-owned firms claimed the first 500 licenses awarded statewide.
Of the 45 kiosk licenses awarded in Hamilton County through Sept. 16, eight went to Kroger Co. locations and 22 others told the WCPO 9 I-Team they are not minority-owned. Williams said he's pretty sure he's the only Black-owned bar to get a license so far.
Thomas was surprised to learn sports betting regulators are not collecting race and gender data as part of the licensing process.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Thomas said. “That’s not helpful.”
In a statement, the Ohio Casino Control Commission said House Bill 29 requires it to consider eight “suitability factors” when evaluating applicants, including past criminal convictions and bankruptcies. It also specifies four “economic development” factors, including expected employee tax payments and “expenditures for physical infrastructure.”
On the matter of economic inclusion, the law requires the hiring of a consultant to study “whether, and the extent to which, qualified persons experience discrimination or disadvantage in the sports gaming industry on the basis of their membership in a racial minority group, their color or ethnicity, their gender, or their disability.”
Thomas said that language was included in House Bill 29 because some representatives were bothered by a lack of diversity in Ohio’s medical marijuana dispensaries, where eight of 58 dispensaries were minority-owned as of last September. That’s slightly below the 15% inclusion rate that state officials initially announced for the program in 2016.
A Franklin County judge struck down that inclusion goal in 2018, saying it was illegal because there was no documented history of discrimination in Ohio’s medicinal marijuana industry. That’s also true for sports betting. Like marijuana, it’s a brand new industry in Ohio. That’s why Thomas was hoping a disparity study would be complete in time for its findings to inform licensing decisions.
“This is a work in progress,” Thomas said. “We are expecting every letter of the bill to be followed as written.”
The sports-betting statute offers no timeline for when the disparity study must be conducted. Once completed, the DAS director “shall provide the results to the commission and inform the commission if the (DAS) director believes the results warrant further action,” according to the casino control commission’s statement.
Williams reviewed the state’s public announcements on license awards and said his is the only Black-owned bar in Hamilton County. He also found three Black-owned bars on the lottery’s list of companies that pre-qualified for a license. Those three either haven’t taken the next step of applying to casino regulators or they applied and are not yet approved.
“The biggest hurdle for Black-owned bars is that a lot of them don’t have a lottery component,” said Williams, who acquired his Savannah Avenue bar in 2010 and started offering lottery games about five years ago. “Once they know the lottery component is huge for this, I think you’ll see more minority bars apply for the lottery.”
Williams also thinks some bar owners are “standoffish” about sports betting because state law allows winning bets of up to $600 to be cashed in at the bar where the bet is placed.
“That’s one of our biggest issues, safety,” Williams said. “Knowing that we have to pay out when we have $600 and below, we’ve got to carry a certain amount of cash. So, that’s definitely going to be an issue for us. We plan to sit down and address that issue.”
Lottery officials recently changed their rules to allow all licensed lottery agents to cash winning sports bets. And they’ve stressed there is no requirement that bars keep a minimum amount of cash on hand. Williams said concerns over safety might fade after sports betting launches in Ohio and bar owners can see how it operates.
“After the first wave, you get the kinks out, then you’ll have more people apply for it,” he said.
In the meantime, Williams is happy to be among the first Black-owned bars in Ohio to offer kiosks.
“It was seamless for us to apply for a license,” Williams said. “You follow the steps and it’s very, very simple.”