Sports bet ban weakening?

There’s a “good chance” Congress will move toward legalizing sports wagering after this year’s presidential election. The momentum that was pointing toward this possibility months ago has been intensifying.

That’s speculation of course, but it came last week from an insider near the highest levels of the gaming industry, a man in a position to know the difference between wishful thinking and the kind of planning that precedes action.

The two of us discussed it, remembering how things used to be during a time in the not so distant past when the smart money declared with confidence that the chance of sports betting being legalized outside Nevada was somewhere between slim and none. “And Slim was out of town,” my friend joked, repeating a familiar line. Locals had no interest in expansion, appreciating the books for what they were, examples of the uniqueness that made the Nevada gaming business something special. Casinos and the books were benefitting from the annual increases in the volume of live games available on television, events that drove steady increases in sports betting activity.

As for the chance of Las Vegas getting a major league professional sports franchise in anything bigger than beach volleyball… Forget about it.

I remember sitting with a Las Vegas casino owner at a Gaming Commission meeting attended by a top official of the National Basketball Association, who declared there would not be any NBA exhibition games played in Las Vegas unless those games were taken off the board in sportsbooks.

The Commission threw up its hands, took a collective deep breath, frowned and said, okay, there would be no betting.

The NFL, which has no sense of humor about Las Vegas has long frowned on interaction between Las Vegas casinos and League personnel on active duty. The League’s police were busy around Super Bowl time sending warning letters that threatened action if the Super Bowl-related festivities at casinos went overboard with parties that piggy-backed on the NFL’s biggest weekend of the year.

The tone of conversation began its shift toward change a couple of years ago thanks in large part to the surging appeal of daily fantasy sports betting, a business that quickly locked in profitable marketing agreements with a number of NFL teams.

The American Gaming Association months ago decided the time is right for a “rational” approach to sports betting, an approach that recognizes the nature of changing times and the public’s growing appetite for sports betting that is thoughtfully regulated at the federal level.

That brings us to the fact that the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet ruled on New Jersey’s effort to have a federal ban on sport betting over-turned so the state can install sports betting at Atlantic City casinos. A three-judge Third Circuit panel rejected the state’s plan last year but then the Circuit agreed to a surprising en banc rehearing of the case in February. The fact there is no ruling yet has some people wondering if the fallout from November voting will point the issue toward a solution.

This case got off the launch pad four years ago when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he would push for sports betting because of what it could mean to the casinos that were under intense pressure from competition in surrounding states.

Four years later Christie is a major player in the campaign of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Sports betting is no one’s idea of the biggest issue in the line-up of issues that require attention in Washington.

But it does not take a lot of imagination to imagine how the future of sports wagering could be shaped by the outcome of November voting.

Just last week Pennsylvania and the United States Conference of Mayors each adopted resolutions in support of taking a new look at how the country approaches the massive underground sports-betting market, according to an ESPN report.

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed House Resolution 619 that urges Congress to lift the federal ban on sports betting. The resolution, sponsored by state Rep. Rob Matzie, passed by a 140-59 vote.

On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan organization of cities with populations of 30,000 or more, also passed a resolution. It states the nation's mayors “believe it’s time for a new approach to sports betting in the United States that could include strict regulation, rigorous consumer protections, taxation of revenues to benefit local communities, and robust tools and resources for law enforcement to root out illegal sports betting and uphold the integrity of games.”

The mayors pledged to work with the American Gaming Association to study the potential benefits of a regulated market.

Phil Hevener has been writing about the Nevada gaming business for more than 30 years. Email: 

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