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Senator Raymond Lesniak Hopes to Bring Sports Wagering to New Jersey...By Jay Graziani

New Jersey, once the gambling mecca of the East coast, has seen its competitive edge rapidly deteriorate in recent years. The expansion of slot parlors throughout the region, most recently and importantly in neighboring Pennsylvania, has dissolved the one-time monopoly on gambling entertainment previously enjoyed by Atlantic City.

The combination of increased competition, a struggling economy, and an ill-advised casino smoking ban have contributed to major trouble on the beaches of South Jersey. Trump Entertainment Resorts, Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection just two weeks ago, following the resignation of figurehead Donald Trump as chairman. The Tropicana is about to be auctioned off, and Resorts Atlantic City is in the midst of an ugly foreclosure battle. The Trump Marina, the Atlantic City Hilton, and the Claridge Tower are all also rumored to be going under sooner rather than later.

One New Jersey Senator has spent the past two years working on a plan to boost New Jersey's gambling credentials to a level closer to that of Las Vegas. Democrat Raymond Lesniak has been advocating a controversial measure - the legalization and regulation of sports gambling within the Garden State.

Federal Law is the major hurdle to Lesniak's plans. The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 prohibits sports wagering within the United States with few exceptions. Presently, only four States are exempt from the sports gambling restrictions: Nevada, Montana, Oregon, and Delaware.

Objections are also coming from the sports leagues, with protests against Lesniak's bill coming from the NBA and NFL. As usual, these protests rail about the "integrity of the sport". But considering the sad state of professional sports integrity today, particularly the baseball steroid scandal and the frequent criminal activities by professional sports stars, such complaints seem half-hearted---at least until the sports leagues start to straighten out their own internal integrity issues. And numerous arguments, too many to cover here, have been made as to why legalized sports books allow for easier detection of "fixed" games.

New Jersey is not alone in its desire to join Nevada in offering legal sports betting. The Delaware General Assembly is expected to consider a proposition to legalize sports wagering within the next month. They optimistically suggest that a sports lottery could be up and running as soon as the 2009 NFL season. Delaware's path is of course much less complicated, since they are one of the four states grandfathered in under federal sports gambling law. If the Delaware legislation passes, New Jersey casinos may quickly find themselves in a boatload of trouble, as valuable gambling dollars quickly migrate south. Only by offering their own sports wagering will the Garden State be able to compete with the Delaware gambling destinations.

While the sports wagering market is surely not large enough to keep Atlantic City's head above water on its revenue alone, it would provide an instant marketing boost for the region. The addition of sports betting would provide, at minimum, a short term stimulus on the novelty factor alone. East Coasters are mostly ignorant of the allure of sports books, and curiosity should drive plenty of traffic through sports book doors in the early months of operations. Atlantic City would be able to attract a new demographic, a sports betting population that is younger and one that could revitalize the industry in Jersey. A few weekends per year, namely the Superbowl and March Madness, could become major economic boons. Casinos could use the short-term publicity as a boost towards establishing a long-term solution for their struggling industry.

With the economy in the gutter, now is an opportune time to push this legislation through New Jersey and into the national spotlight. A recent analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers indicated that the U.S. Treasury could net over $50 billion in tax revenue over the next decade by legalizing sports betting nationwide. New Jersey is an opportune position to capture a large chunk of that revenue, seeing as 20 percent of the U.S. population is located within 300 miles of the Garden State. Furthermore, the sheer number of professional sports teams headquartered in New Jersey, New York, and the Philadelphia area provides a built-in fan base that could easily be converted in to sports book patrons.

Lesniak's dream of legalized sports gambling in New Jersey moved one step closer to realization last week. A resolution co-sponsored by Lesniak and fellow Democrat Jeff Van Drew was approved by the New Jersey Senate on Monday. The resolution urges the United States Congress to repeal the federal restrictions on sports gambling, citing unfair treatment of the 46 states not allowed to expand their gambling operations into the sports arena.

Lesniak has also been considering a lawsuit against the federal government to overturn the sports gambling ban, one he has vowed to pursue himself if the New Jersey legislature doesn't support him. While the odds seem stacked against any reconsideration of the federal gambling ban by Congress, the efforts of Lesniak (and the Delaware legislature) continue to keep sports gambling in the legal and poitical spotlight. Considering the sorry state of government budgets in this economic downturn, the continued push to legalize sports betting may have enough momentum to become more than a pipe dream in the coming year.

Jay Graziani

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