I won’t lie: I’ve made some underground sports bets in my life. I’ve also smoked pot, bought concert tickets from scalpers, and hung out at bars where I threw back cocktails hours after legal drink service officially wrapped up. (Okay, maybe that last one was most of my 20s, come to think of it).
Personally, I have no problem with any of those activities, except for one thing: doing them turned me, technically at least, into a law-breaker.
I am not alone in being a generally law-abiding person who’s dipped down into the dark side here and there. In fact, according to Play NJ, more than $4 billion has been illegally wagered on sports this year in New Jersey alone.
On December 4, steps were taken to alter that situation. A hearing was held in the Supreme Court of the United States, with the state of New Jersey making a bid for the federal government to lift its nearly national ban on sports betting. The latter has been in place since the passage of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA).
That change would allow the Garden State to make its own decision. A change which, pending that federal green light, New Jersey is ready to unleash with its own legal sports betting. In a mismatch that the WWF would find laughable, this fight saw Governor Chris Christie vs the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and NCAA in the legal ring, but don’t assume you know who’s coming out on top.
Christie wants sports betting brought in, of course, while the leagues’ top brass maintain that it could have a corrupting influence.
Treading in Murky Waters
It turns out that Christie may have been just the kind of heavyweight to face off against the major leagues after all. Because the MSM’s initial consensus of the SCOTUS review seems to be that the majority of justices see the prevailing law as flawed.
There was plenty of back and forth among the justices on Monday, with arguments about whether or not the feds can rightfully tell state governments what they can and cannot do in this arena.
“All we have here are a group of provisions telling states what they cannot do,” said Justice Stephen Breyer. “At the same time the federal government does not have a clear federal policy.”
Statements like that one increased the odds that sports betting (in Garden State casinos and at race tracks) will soon be something that I’ll be able to do close to my home in New York City without having to rub elbows, directly or indirectly, with people who walk on the wrong side of the law (and have sometimes been known to bust kneecaps).
It seems as if the smart money already knows the outcome. After the proceedings, bellicose Chris Cristie crowed, “If we’re successful here, we can have bets being taken in New Jersey within two weeks of a decision by the court. We’re like boy scouts: we’re prepared.”
I heard about the Borgata gearing up for construction of a $7 million sports book while on a recent trip to Atlantic City. Bosses there do not seem to be sweating the Supreme Court outcome, and are apparently already counting the cash influx in their heads. They are betting more than I ever could on the likelihood of New Jersey-sanctioned sports betting coming through.
By the middle of next year, we should know whether Borgata executives were being prescient or overly optimistic.
Staking Out the Garden State
If sports betting passes muster with SCOTUS, the most obvious winners will be the residents of New Jersey. They’ll get to bet sports legitimately, watch games in new (and presumably massive and luxuriously appointed) sports books, and the Garden State will realize extra revenue by taxing sports betting enterprises to the hilt.
Second-place finishers will be guys like me, who live close enough to make the trek. Legal sports betting gives me one more reason to drive down to Atlantic City on any given weekend. Through all of this, the state’s casino and horseracing industries will get financial shots in the arm that they desperately need as well.
Third-place trophies? Going to professional sports. Controversy over the national anthem protests aside, with legal betting, more people will have reasons to watch games on TV, period.
After all, viewing sports with no money riding on the outcome is a bit like buying dinner for a hot chick who just kisses you on the cheek when you drop her off at home: a lot of time invested with no ultimate reward.
The biggest losers, of course, will be the illegal bookies who now make bank on the underground sports betting market. The day that you can start to place bets at casinos and racetracks nationwide, they’ll experience a dramatic drop in business that may ultimately send them back to college for that accounting degree their mom always wanted them to get anyway.
Las Vegas, which currently more or less owns the legal US sports betting market, will take a bit of a hit, of course. There will be fewer bets made there and East Coasters who typically are jonesing for a visit to Sin City for March Madness blowouts may just decide to bet closer to home.
But don’t cry into your adult beverage just yet. Just as the Western gaming epicenter has continued to make bank despite almost every American state having some kind of legal gambling presence now, the Vegas sports books aren’t likely to shut down due to lack of customers anytime soon, no matter what the SCOTUS decision may be vis-a-vis a sports betting ban .
Not Playing Ball
For reasons beyond my own comprehension, the NFL, which is now prepping to start the Raiders playing out of Las Vegas in 2020, is taking the hardest stance against legalization. Its spokespeople say they are worried about increased potential for games to be fixed.
But the football league may soon be the lone holdout. According to ABC News, “NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said gambling isn’t a major concern.” And it shouldn’t be for an operation that now has a hockey team, the Golden Knights, skating on not at all thin ice in Vegas.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece back in 2014, arguing that we should “legalize and regulate sports betting.” And according to ESPN, major league baseball decision-makers are leaning toward favoring legalization.
At this juncture, it’s becoming tougher and tougher to find any serious opposition among the pros or the hoi polloi to making sports betting in the US legal for any state that wishes to do so, whether on land or online.
As for me, I’m trying to drum up action on sports betting coming through or not, but have had a helluva time finding anyone willing to bet that the SCOTUS will leave the ban in place.
Meanwhile, I’m more than ready to place my bets in Atlantic City the right way, legally, if the Supreme Court does the right thing this spring.
Editor’s Note: Michael Kaplan is a New York-based journalist. He has written about gambling for The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Playboy, Thrillist, British GQ, and Esquire.com. Kaplan has authored or co-authored four books, including “Aces and Kings: Inside Stories and Million-Dollar Strategies from Poker’s Greatest Players.”
This is his first piece for Casino.org.