Bet­tors ev­ery­where await New Jersey’s sports gam­bling rul­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - GAMBLING - BYWILL HOB­SON will.hob­son@wash­post.com

A mon­u­men­tal month of court rul­ings ended this week with­out one ju­di­cial de­ci­sion that Amer­ica’s pro­fes­sional sports leagues, gam­blers, gam­ing in­dus­try in­sid­ers and a few New Jersey law­mak­ers are anx­iously await­ing.

The rul­ing in “NCAA, et al v. Gover­nor of New Jersey, et al” was ex­pected in June and could come any day. A win for New Jersey could ef­fec­tively le­gal­ize sports bet­ting there and pave the way for le­gal­iza­tion in other states. A win for sports leagues would pre­serve the ban on wide­spread sports bet­ting out­side Ne­vada in place since 1992.

This case is the latest chap­ter in New Jersey’s years-long fight to le­gal­ize sports bet­ting, which law­mak­ers hope could help re­vive busi­ness in strug­gling At­lantic City casi­nos, which have seen crowds ebb as casino gam­bling has spread across the coun­try. Three fed­eral judges on the Third Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals heard oral ar­gu­ments March 17 in Philadelphia. The court usu­ally takes about three months to re­turn an ap­peals rul­ing, le­gal ex­perts said, so a de­ci­sion was ex­pected in June.

Un­like the Supreme Court, which re­leases de­ci­sions be­fore it re­cesses for the sum­mer, fed­eral ap­peals courts work year-round, and re­lease de­ci­sions when they’re done.

“The dead­line is when they feel like it. No­body can tell them to speed it along. Their first pri­or­ity is get­ting it right,” said Daniel Wal­lach, a sports gam­ing law ex­pert and lawyer at Becker & Po­li­akoff in Fort Laud­erdale, Fla.

Wal­lach at­tended the oral ar­gu­ments in March, and while he ex­pects the sports leagues to pre­vail, he isn’t rul­ing out a New Jersey win, as he ex­plained in a de­tailed blog post an­a­lyz­ing the case.

The fight in N. J.

In 1992, pro sports leagues suc­cess­fully lob­bied Congress to pass the Pro­fes­sional and Am­a­teur Sports Pro­tec­tion Act— com­monly known as PASPA — which barred states that didn’t al­ready have le­gal sports bet­ting from adding it. This law ef­fec­tively gave Ne­vada a sports gam­bling mo­nop­oly.

In 2012, New Jersey law­mak­ers tried to le­gal­ize sports bet­ting any­way, and the leagues sued in fed­eral court to stop it. New Jersey’s lawyers ar­gued that PASPA was un­con­sti­tu­tional but lost. On an ap­peal, the same fed­eral ap­peals court mulling the cur­rent case ruled in fa­vor of the sports leagues, but the judges left an open­ing for New Jersey.

PASPA is con­sti­tu­tional, the judges said then, but noth­ing pre­vented New Jersey from re­peal­ing its state laws against sports bet­ting. The court ba­si­cally left a path to le­gal sports bet­ting sim­i­lar to how Colorado and Washington got le­gal mar­i­juana: re­move the state laws and hope fed­eral law en­force­ment doesn’t put up a fight.

New Jersey law­mak­ers didn’t want to com­pletely get rid of their state pro­hi­bi­tions on sports bet­ting, though, which would send gam­blers to newly em­bold­ened neigh­bor­hood book­ies. So in 2014, Gov. Chris Christie par­tially re­pealed New Jersey’s laws against sports bet­ting, al­low­ing it only in casi­nos and race­tracks. The sports leagues sued again.

The cur­rent case ba­si­cally hinges on a de­bate over the mean­ing of six verbs in PASPA. The law says states can not “au­tho­rize, spon­sor, op­er­ate, ad­ver­tise, pro­mote, or li­cense” sports bet­ting. New Jersey is ar­gu­ing that this latest at­tempt does none of those things. The sports leagues are ar­gu­ing that, by try­ing to only al­low sports bet­ting in state-li­censed casi­nos and race tracks, New Jersey is au­tho­riz­ing sports bet­ting and is ba­si­cally li­cens­ing it, too.

What’s at stake? In the short-term, money. If New Jersey wins, of­fi­cials at Mon­mouth Park race track— who al­ready have part­nered with Bri­tish gam­bling com­pany Wil­liam Hill in an­tic­i­pa­tion of even­tual le­gal­iza­tion— say they could have a sports book op­er­a­tional by football sea­son, which be­gins in Septem­ber. That would be a good idea be­cause football is by far the most pop­u­lar sport for Amer­i­can sports gam­blers.

In 2014, $3.9 bil­lion was gam­bled on sports in Ne­vada, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of state gam­ing rev­enue re­ports by the UNLV Cen­ter for Gam­ing Re­search. Nearly half — $1.75 bil­lion — was wa­gered on football. (That in­cludes both the NFL and col­lege football; the anal­y­sis doesn’t of­fer a break­down by league.) Bas­ket­ball was the sec­ond-most pop­u­lar sport for gam­bling, with $1.1 bil­lion wa­gered. Base­ball was third, with $722 mil­lion wa­gered.

In the long-term, a win for New Jersey could show other states in­ter­ested in le­gal sports bet­ting how to do it. And a win for the sports leagues could deal a crush­ing blow to the ef­fort to le­gal­ize sports bet­ting, or it could just be a set­back, depend­ing on the ex­act lan­guage of the rul­ing.

Why is the NBA su­ing?

Com­mis­sioner Adam Sil­ver does want le­gal sports bet­ting, but he wants a com­pre­hen­sive, fed­eral over­haul to Amer­ica’s sports gam­bling law. Es­sen­tially, he wants PASPA re­pealed so peo­ple across the coun­try can bet on sports and sports leagues and law en­force­ment can tightly con­trol and mon­i­tor the Amer­i­can bet­ting mar­ket, keep­ing an eye out for ir­reg­u­lar bet­ting ac­tiv­ity that could in­di­cate cor­rup­tion.

Sil­ver does not want an in­cre­men­tal, state-by-state switch, which is ba­si­cally how Amer­ica has al­ways dealt with gam­bling. (See the his­to­ries of both state lot­ter­ies and casi­nos.) In­ter­est­ingly, while the NBA is pub­licly op­pos­ing New Jersey in this case, some gam­ing law ex­perts think Sil­ver is pri­vately hop­ing the sports leagues lose, giv­ing him more lever­age to con­vince his fel­low com­mis­sion­ers that the fight to keep sports bet­ting illegal out­side Ne­vada is hope­less, and they should go to fed­eral law­mak­ers and ask for a re­peal of PASPA.

Can ei­ther side ap­peal?

Of course. This is the Amer­i­can ju­di­cial sys­tem, noth­ing is ever over. But this case is a big one be­cause any ap­peal faces long odds of get­ting heard. The los­ing side would first ask for a re-hear­ing en banc, which would mean ask­ing all 23 judges in the Third Cir­cuit, not just the three that heard the case, to weigh in. If that re­quest is de­nied, there’s al­ways the Supreme Court. But both are long shots. This rul­ing could be the last word from Amer­ica’s courts on the fight to le­gal­ize sports bet­ting for a while.

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