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Proposing Sports Betting in Atlantic City: We've Seen This Movie Before...By Nelson Lardner

Last Thursday, the New Jersey State Assembly's Tourism and Gaming Committee unanimously approved a bill which would legalize gambling on professional sports in New Jersey. Given the local betting frenzy certain to be generated by the New York Giants' participation in Super Bowl XLII this weekend, it's a timely topic.

It's more than a coincidence that this legislative rite is occurring just as we approach Groundhog Day on the calendar. This scenario has been repeated with triphammer frequency, ever since then-U.S. Senator Bill Bradley and friends effectively scuttled the possibility of the Garden State joining Nevada as a legal marketplace for those bearing cash-backed opinions on scheduled NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL events, fifteen years ago.

As the Asbury Park Press scribe Bob Ingle noted in his online blog Friday: "'This is an opportunity for us to jump-start this industry' said Assemblyman Lou 'The Empty Suit' Greenwald, a bill sponsor. Greenwald knows even if the bill becomes NJ law, there is a . . . federal law that bans sports betting in all states but Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon."---

Operating out of Camden, Greenwald has been down this road more than once himself. And there's little reason for any increased measure of Pollyanna-ish optimism this time around. This legislation has repeatedly found smooth sailing in the State Assembly, only to get stuck in quicksand in Jersey's State Senate.

Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) has commented that "I think Appalachian State would have to beat the Giants before the federal government would allow us to change the law to permit sports betting in casinos . . . That's about where our odds stand, right now."

Sen. Codey, himself a huge supporter of the thoroughbred-racing industry in the state (currently struggling, as slot machine-deprived Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands struggle in competition with tracks in surrounding states blessed with slot-machine revenue augmenting racing purses), is nothing but a realist.

On a parallel note, some have held out of the possibility that sports wagering could become an additional racetrack amenity, should legalization eventually take hold. That appears a considerable stretch, for a laundry-list of reasons, but, hey . . . if you're going to dream, dream big. But there are more hurdles to surpass than in England's Grand National Steeplechase, and even if the Senate might miraculously be motivated to budge themselves on the issue, the established Federal stonewall would have to be surmounted.

Friday's Newark Star-Ledger quoted Joseph Lupo, a Borgata Casino and Hotel vice president, to the effect that up to $800 million might conceivably be bet on sports in Atlantic City on an annual basis were regulated sports wagering conducted. Previously in charge of Boyd Gaming's sports-wagering operation in Vegas while operating out of the dear, departed Stardust Hotel and Casino before heading East to help oversee the wildly-successful Borgata, Lupo has a good opinion, and believes sports betting could provide a vital stepping stone as a resort amenity aiding in progress towards a brighter tomorrow. "Atlantic City must become a full destination," Lupo told the Star-Ledger. "Millions of people will be in Las Vegas for the Super Bowl. In Atlantic City, it will be another average January, February weekend."

Aside from the prevalent legal obstacles, Lupo's vision would necessitate the adaptation the Las Vegas model of sports betting . . . pointspreads with -110 working, for the NFL and NBA, and moneylines for the major leagues and the NHL. This is infinitely more attractive/desirable than some shifty card format requiring a minimum of three or more selections in conjunction with cruelly-shaved parlay odds. As Vegas has managed it, so could Ay Cee, theoretically . . . with the more attractive private-business model, as opposed to a government-overseen operation. Given that the lottery (with its 50% rake) is the typical government entity's ideal gaming format, players would rush to patronize any legal sportsbetting operation which isn't a blatant ripoff. The casinos would be SRO on football weekends.

Lupo's point of view by no means reflects a local gaming-community consensus. At least one other major regional operator (do I hear the name "Trump?") has a history of not being a big fan of the idea of sports wagering, in large part because it's an enterprise in which it's entirely possible that the house can have a bad day, week or month, should the players turn out to be right enough, often enough.

Dream on, dream on. When legalization's best chance essentially lay in the possibility of the prevailing federal law being declared unconstitutional, supporters are rooting for a long chance . . . certainly during the next twelve months, and possibly well-beyond, so long as the GOP enjoys an essential stranglehold on what in the best of all possible worlds would be a politics-blind U. S. Supreme Court.

But there's always a chance, so long as significant tax money could be generated by legalization, whether at the state or federal level. The leagues talk tough now, while smiling to themselves about just how much interest illegal gambling generates in televised professional games, thus boosting ad rates and industry profits. But the leagues could be brought to heel easily enough, if push came to shove, with a well-timed discussion of, say, MLB's anti-trust exemption.

Anything is possible. But to expect immediate gratification in this specific realm makes no sense.


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