One of the great paradoxes that philosophers and scientists alike have mulled through the ages is the prospect of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
It's one of those notions that results in intense intellectual frustration, as great minds ponder and debate the ultimate epic conflict. And in the world of sports gambling -- where there are two powerful but competing realities -- it is no different, meaning there's still tons of frustration.
In this case, the irresistible force would be the public's ravenous appetite for wagering on sports, which would seem to make a change in policies regarding sports betting inevitable. However, the immovable object, at least so far, has been the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a federal law that has shut down every meaningful attempt at liberalizing sports gambling laws in America and has limited it mainly to Nevada with a handful of other states allowed to offer watered-down versions.
So let's take a look at the irresistible force.
Legal sports gambling is more popular than ever. This year, the handle (the amount wagered) on sports in Nevada is expected to hit $5 billion, about double what it was a decade ago. Making that even more impressive is that Nevada gambling handles for other types of gaming (slots, table games) has suffered slow growth and, in some cases, even decreases.
However, it's in the illegal sports gambling market (read internet bookies) where some of the extraordinary figures pop up. The American Gaming Association (AGA), the umbrella group that represents the casino industry, estimates Americans wagered $149 billion illegally on sports in 2015 -- 30 times what Nevada bookmakers will handle this year. Some estimates on illegal sports gambling put the number as high as nearly $400 billion.
The AGA, now in a full-court press on the sports gambling issue, conducted a survey earlier this year that indicated about two-thirds of football fans feel legalized sports betting would actually protect the integrity of the games. Five years ago, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding referendum in favor of sports gambling.
The most important sports institutions have also changed their attitudes. Consider that ESPN now makes sports gambling as routine a part of its coverage as game stories. NBA commissioner Adam Silver penned his now-famous New York Times op-ed in late 2014 advocating for federal oversight in sports wagering. The top executives in both MLB and the NHL have discussed sports gambling in less hostile, arguably accepting, tones. Only the NFL remains steadfastly opposed -- save for team and a few owners' involvement in the recent hybrid of sports wagering, daily fantasy sports.
In government circles, Delaware tried to slip in single-event sports betting for its casinos in 2009, but the major sports organizations blocked the attempt, and Delaware was left with its current parlay-style betting. New Jersey has pulled every trick it can think of to get sports wagering into its casinos and racetracks without any success, due to PASPA. Its court challenge continues.
So if average folks are saying loud and clear that they want sports betting and many major institutional players are either on-board or coming around, what's the hold up?
Well, that would be the immovable object, the aforementioned PASPA, a law championed by former NBA basketball star Bill Bradley when he was a U.S. senator representing New Jersey.
Since 1992, when PASPA went on the books, it has been bulletproof to any challenge.
And there have been all kinds of challenges, some of them Constitutional in nature, and PASPA has weathered them all.
So if PASPA can't be undone judicially, what's the answer? Well, that's simple. The answer is a legislative remedy. All you need is for Congress to repeal PASPA or amend it so that each state can decide for itself whether it wants to permit sports gambling.
Unfortunately, anyone who has watched Congress at work, or rather not at work, during the last eight years realizes that getting anything done in Washington, D.C., on a topic as potentially combustible as sports gambling is virtually impossible.
In May, a subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing ostensibly to plumb the mysteries of daily fantasy sports, and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) used the hearing as an opportunity to discuss traditional sports wagering, especially in light of DFS operating in many jurisdictions.
Of course, a subcommittee hearing in which sports wagering gets a mention is hardly cause for exuberance by the sports gambling crowd. There's still no credible indication Congress is going anywhere near the issue of sports betting.
As far as a court decision turning the tide, New Jersey's wheezing attempts to outflank PASPA by essentially repealing its own ban on sports wagering is in the hands of the full panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. A decision is expected this summer, but after a hearing in February on the matter, no legal scholars were particularly optimistic that New Jersey would break its losing streak on getting sports betting.
The sports book operator that runs the sports gambling operations at more than 100 locations throughout Nevada recently said it took an NFL futures bet that would pay $540,000 if a certain NFL team won the Super Bowl (answer at the end).
In the most recent futures odds, as of press time, the Patriots are the favorite to win Super Bowl LI (we're back to Roman numerals) at 15-2, even with the prospect of quarterback Tom Brady sitting out a few games. Seattle is 9-1, Pittsburgh is 10-1 and Green Bay is 11-1. Defending NFL champion Denver is 12-1.
The Ravens are 30-1.
And the team whose victory would lighten the bookmaker by $540,000?
It's the Tampa Buccaneers, who attracted a $9,000 wager at 60-1.