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Broader Sports Wagering On Horizon, But Odds Are Maryland Won't Be At Forefront

November 15, 2017
Just about everyone familiar with the issues of sports and gambling realizes there will be much broader wagering on sports in America sooner or later.

In Maryland, it's a good bet that the pace of things means you can emphasize "later," but more on that in a bit.

Last month marked the 25th anniversary of a federal law with the lofty name of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, otherwise known as PASPA.

That law has prohibited the vast majority of states from introducing sports wagering while grandfathering four states that had some sort of sports betting prior to PASPA's enactment, most notably Nevada. And it's clear now that one thing the law with the word "protection" in its title actually protected was illegal sports book operations.

That's not just the opinion of those who have long supported loosening laws on sports wagering. It's also the opinion of law enforcement. Last month, the national Fraternal Order of Police said in a statement: "It's clear PASPA is not working. Simply put, the ban has not stopped fans from betting on sports -- it's just driven it underground."

New Jersey has been in the vanguard of the effort to repeal, amend or do an end-run around PASPA and has advanced its fight to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments in December for a case (captioned Christie v. NCAA) pitting New Jersey against the major pro sports leagues and the NCAA which have used PASPA to block attempts at legalized sports wagering. A Supreme Court decision is expected no sooner than next spring.

All this comes against the backdrop of the NFL, NHL and WNBA locating franchises in Las Vegas; pro sports commissioners, such as the NBA's Adam Silver and MLB's Rob Manfred, publicly preparing for sports betting as the new normal; and state after state lining up to take advantage of that new normal whether it's a judicial or Congressional thunderbolt that strikes down PASPA.

And that brings us to Maryland.

However and whenever the broad ban on sports betting is lifted, a number of states are taking anticipatory steps to jump in as soon as possible.

Most recently, Pennsylvania passed sweeping gambling changes that include establishing a framework for legalizing and regulating legal bookmaking operations. Delaware has been champing at the bit ever since 2009-2010 when it was forced to settle for parlay wagering after losing its own court battle against the defenders of PASPA. New Jersey, of course, will be in a mad dash to set up sports books. And even the West Virginia Lottery is paying for a study on sports wagering to get the ball rolling.

As far as Maryland governmental activity?

Crickets.

Well, some are making noise, such as the casino industry.

Joe Weinberg, chief executive of Cordish Global Gaming, part of the corporate umbrella that owns Live! Casino in Hanover, Md., is urging action.

"Given the industry's proven track record in generating significant tax dollars to the state, it is clearly in the state's interest to maintain the industry's high level of competitiveness and ensure the state's casinos are able to compete on a level playing field with our neighboring states," Weinberg said in an email. "We have one of the strongest gaming industries in the country with extremely attractive facilities that are located convenient to large population bases. It is in the state's interests to maintain the success of the industry, and like any business, that means both encouraging reinvestment and giving the industry the reasonable regulatory framework to keep its product current so it can compete in an ever changing environment."

However, Maryland's timeline regarding sports wagering can be protracted, to put it tactfully. Introducing sports gambling represents a significant expansion of gaming and must be approved by voters in a statewide referendum. The next opportunity would be next year and if that deadline is missed, the next chance would be November 2020.

Last year, a legislative proposal to merely study sports gambling couldn't make an inch of progress, and Del. Frank Turner (D-Howard), co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Gaming Oversight, doesn't see a need for urgency.

"If it were up to the committee, it would be in 2020, but there are some people who want it to be 2018," Turner said of a sports wagering referendum.

"We're still waiting for the decision on the New Jersey-NCAA case, and once the Supreme Court decides that case, that will give us better direction."

Just a reminder: It's quite possible there will be no Supreme Court decision until after the Maryland General Assembly finishes its 2018 session.

Turner, who has been instrumental in advancing gaming legislation in the past, makes the point that sports wagering has not moved the needle revenue-wise dramatically in Nevada.

"When you look at Las Vegas, [sports wagering] is such a small percentage of casino revenues, about 1.95 percent, and I'm not sure we'd do that much here," Turner said. "So it's certainly not going to provide a windfall, regardless of whether we do it in 2018 or 2020."

Weinberg sees sports wagering as beneficial beyond the specific revenue it generates.

"Sports wagering located at the State's six casinos [is] projected to generate close to 2 million incremental casino visits annually and over $100 million of new tax dollars to the state, primarily through spin-off casino gaming participation by this new market of players," Weinberg wrote.

In the casino business -- as in sports -- you are either moving ahead or falling behind -- at least that seems to be Weinberg's message.

"It is critical," he said, "that the state's casinos continue to remain competitive in the regional marketplace and be in a position to offer the full complement of gaming alternatives, including sports wagering, to ensure the industry continues to generate high levels of revenue support to the state." 

Issue 239: November 2017