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Atlantic City Sports "Action": Don't Hold Your Breath...By Nelson Lardner

Last Thursday's abrupt exit by Pinnacle Sports from the United States sports wagering market did more than merely stir the market-share pot. It again dredged up the lingering question of legalized sports wagering on the Northeastern Seaboard . . . with the most dead trees and ink on the subject dedicated to Atlantic City.

Given the increased competition to Atlantic City casinos emerging from numerous racetrack-connected slot palaces in adjacent states, siphoning off customers only too happy to forego the arduous drive to South Jersey, the tide of inside opinion regarding Ay Cee sports gaming may be shifting. Heaven knows, the shore casino/hotels had long postured against it - why offer something which can actually leave your operation vulnerable to red ink, for a day/week/month? . . . but the erosion of a non-longer-captive audience can change the tune of many an uneasy operator.

The longstanding fly in the ointment is the Professional and Amatuer Sports Protection Act of 1992, championed through the federal legislative process by ex-New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. The Act, a regrettable product of shocking naivete, resistance to the tides of human nature, and apparent willful ignorance of the lessons taught by American Prohibition, was signed by Bush I prior to his being shown the door by the electorate.

The PASPA included a provision for New Jersey to deal itself an exemption (already carved out for Nevada, Delaware and Oregon) if the state's voters approved a referendum no later than New Year's Day of 1994. Alas, New Jersey legislators who were proponents failed to manage to place it on the ballot before that deadline, and Bradley's jawboning on the issue made a tough sell an uphill climb.

Jersey State Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew is making yet another run at putting a state sports-betting referendum on the Garden State ballot. an Drew has practice in this area; he tried to make a go of this a year ago, and Chairman Van Drew got it out of his Tourism and Gaming Committee, but it died in Appropriations . . . bottled up by Atlantic County legislators.

Van Drew has the support of U. S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, serving his seventh term as Atlantic City's congressman in Washington. LoBiondo has indicated his willingness to run with this ball - provided the state legislature manages to make tangible, meaningful progress on this issue.

As a further read on state political attitudes, note that then-first-term U. S. Senator Jon Corzine looked favorably on Atlantic City sports betting when running for governor two years ago, making the obvious competitive-necessity points on behalf of the resort city . . . though he has made no such comparable overt positive public utterances in his senatorial role, of late.

Realistically, there are more hurdles in the way of the successful implementation of this idea than there are on the Grand National Steeplechase course in Aintree. Let us enumerate some of the obstacles, ranging from merely imposing to mind-bendingly difficult:

(1) Getting a bill through the Jersey state legislature.

(2) Once that's accomplished, somehow neutralizing the hysterical resistance that's sure to come from the NFL and the NHL, both of whom enjoy prominent state presences, even though two of the three teams referenced carry New York names. . . and we're not even talking about the Nets, on their way to Brooklyn.

After that, you're looking at a tortuous gantlet-run through the national court system, no doubt ending up before the Supremes.

. . . and then, even if this particular exotic parlay hits, whaddya got? All of the political rhetoric has been about "legalized sportsbetting". The mental picture readers may derive from that phrase (sports wagering based on the Nevada model) is not necessarily what you might eventually get on the state level. You'd like to think you might wind up with something resembling the Vegas prototype, in the best of all possible worlds - but find it hard to believe you'll wind up with anything better than the Canadian model -- parlay-card playtime, where taking a shot on a single, stand-alone game would remain a pipe dream under state auspices.

Breathe deeply, several times, and cool your jets. Under the current national administration, the climate for success for this kind of legislation is beyond rotten. But, I encourage those willing to step up to the plate . . . if only to embarrass those who have no good business reason to resist such an initiative, in these days of huge state budget shortfalls.

Nelson Lardner

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