Betting On Sports

The Supreme Court made a lot of important rulings earlier this year.  One ruling that got a bit lost in the shuffle may end up having an important impact on states across the country, colleges that play big-time sports, and professional sports franchises, too.

300px-eight_men_bannedIn May, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that effectively banned gambling on sports, with some exceptions, in all states but Nevada.  The federal law, called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, was based on concern that allowing widespread gambling might undercut sports as a form of wholesome entertainment.  Nevada, which already permitted gambling on sports, was allowed to continue, but other states were largely barred from doing so.  New Jersey passed a state law allowing gambling on sports and then challenged the federal law, and the Supreme Court sided with New Jersey, ruling  that while Congress has the power to regulate sports betting at the federal level, it can’t dictate to states what their individual laws must be.

Why did New Jersey decide to challenge the federal law?  Do you really need to ask?  Of course, the answer is money.  New Jersey’s casinos were struggling, and it objected to Nevada having a federally sanctioned monopoly on sports gambling.  If sports gambling were allowed in its casinos, New Jersey reasoned, it might promote tourism and increase tax revenues.  And these days, states are all about increasing their revenues.

With the Supreme Court ruling, Ohio legislators are now looking at whether Ohio, too, should legalize gambling on sports.  One argument made in favor is that many Ohioans already bet on sports through the underground economy — so why not take the activity above ground and get some tax revenue from it?  But the existence of the illicit sports betting also poses a challenge, because states that want to legalize the activity in order to earn revenue have to figure out how to make legal gambling as easy and attractive as calling the local bookie.  One issue for legislators to consider, for example, is whether Ohio should allow on-line gambling, so long as the website has some Ohio presence and the state gets a cut of the action.  Or, should such betting be limited to licensed casinos?

And colleges, universities, and professional sports leagues are holding their breath, too.  They opposed New Jersey’s effort to overturn the federal law, because confining legal sports gambling to Las Vegas kept it separate and apart from 99.9 percent of campuses, stadiums, and sports arenas.  Now legalized gambling on sports will be out in the open, and there are concerns that gamblers hoping to get an edge might bribe professional and amateur athletes to throw a game or do something to affect the point spread.

College sports administrators and professional sports leagues are worried about another Black Sox scandal — who can blame them?  After all, it’s been 100 years, and the 1919 American League champions from Chicago are still called the Black Sox.

Stoned On The Strip

Yesterday legal marijuana sales began in Nevada.  Well, why not?  In the Silver State there’s already legalized gambling and prostitution, a tradition of Rat Pack boozing and partying, and a prevailing “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” ethos.   So why not add marijuana to the mix, to ensure that every imaginable mood-altering option is available to people who can pay with the coin of the realm?

They don’t call it Sin City for nothing.

las-vegas-stripNevada now is the fifth state to legalize the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use.  In Nevada, adults 21 and over can purchase and possess up to an ounce of marijuana, but public use is still prohibited — because, even in Las Vegas, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Some of the Las Vegas marijuana stores, with names like Reef Dispensaries and Euphoria Wellness, opened at midnight, to take advantage of the first moments that the new law took effect, and reported long lines and brisk business.  One purchaser said “you don’t have to hide in the corner anymore and feel bad about it,” and thereby articulated one of the core concepts underlying Las Vegas culture generally.

The trend toward general legalization of marijuana seems pretty clear and probably is close to irreversible, but I’ll still be interested in how it all works out for Las Vegas.  Drinking seems to go a lot better with gaming than marijuana does.  You wouldn’t think that stoned individuals would be particularly keen about going out to gamble, where they probably would wonder whether everyone was staring at them and whether it was their turn to take a hit at the blackjack table.  Maybe Nevada is just trying to stimulate sales of Dark Side of the Moon.

Pro Sports In Vegas

The NFL has approved the request of the Oakland Raiders franchise to move to Las Vegas.  It’s not clear when the Raiders will actually start playing in Vegas, and the team will likely play another season or two in Oakland, but a new stadium is expected to be built for them in their new home in southern Nevada in time for the 2020 season.

ows_149067187344496The story here isn’t another move of a pro sports franchise; teams packing up and hauling their operations to a new town is old news these days.  The Raiders, who have shuttled back and forth between Oakland and Los Angeles and always seem to be either moving or on the verge of moving, are one of the hand-wringing teams that are forever working their local government for a more lucrative deal.  If Las Vegas wants to foot the bill for a lavish new domed stadium — which is expected to cost at least $1.9 billion, with the costs being split between revenues generated by an increased hotel room tax, the Raiders organization, and a Las Vegas gazillionaire — to get the NFL brand associated with Sin City, that’s its decision to make.

No, the real story here is that the Raiders’ approved move to Las Vegas is just the latest evidence of the increasingly accepted association of gambling and sports.  Gambling used to be one of the chief concerns of professional and college sports teams.  From the Chicago Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, to the college basketball point-shaving scandals of the ’40s and ’50s, to the suspension of Pete Rose from major league baseball for betting on baseball games, sports leagues traditionally reacted viscerally to any association with gambling.

But a lot has changed in America, and gambling has become much more commonplace and accepted.  When I was in Philadelphia recently the landscape was dotted with signs for casino gambling; the slot machines and table games that used to be reserved for Las Vegas can now be found in more than half the states in America.  Betting on sports events has become so routine that the lines and odds on games and matches are available to anyone with a few strokes of a keyboard, and one of America’s great annual pastimes is participating in the NCAA March Madness pool at the office.  There’s not as much of a taint to gambling as used to be the case.

But, is it good to have an NFL team in Las Vegas, where sports gambling is legal and people can make, or lose, huge sums of money if the point spread gets covered because of a flukey last-minute play?  Is it wise to have professional athletes living in a community where, at a party or charity event, they may hobnob with some well-heeled but shady characters who might drop a hint or two about how the athletes and their teammates could make some easy money without costing their team a game?  Could you envision a scenario where an NFL star has a bad run of luck at the gaming tables and is encouraged to even the score by missing a block or dropping a sure touchdown catch?  I suppose you can argue that pro athletes could be exposed to such characters, and temptations, anywhere in America, but gambling is so deeply engrained and accepted in the Las Vegas culture that I’m not sure other situations are really comparable to pro athletes being based in a place that is often called a “gambling mecca.”

We’ve come a long way since the days when pro sports teams did whatever they could to project a squeaky clean image.  Now we’ll have an NFL team located squarely in the most gambling-oriented town in America.

Everyday Everywhere Gambling

  
On the C concourse of Port Columbus, at the end of a row of vending machines, sits this colorful Ohio Lottery device.  It apparently allows you to play virtually every game the Ohio Lottery offers — from the scratch-off instant games to the full lottery drawing decided by the rattling ping pong balls.  I guess there must be some bored travelers who might want to pass the time waiting at gate C52 by getting a mini gambling fix, and if so, the Ohio Lottery is happy to help them feed the beast.

Turn on a football game, and you’ll see incessant ads for Draft Kings and Fan Duel.  The little fantasy football group at the office has morphed into a big business with commercials with footage of exuberantly celebrating winners and testimonials where players talk about their winnings and the thrill of competing for cash.

And, of course, Ohio is now home to three casinos and a number of “racinos” that combine horse racing with hundreds of slot machines.  No matter where you live in the Buckeye State, you don’t have to drive far to plop yourself in front of a one-armed bandit with a cup of quarters.  And if you go to a bar after your racino visit, odds are there may be a Keno game available for your enjoyment as you sip your beer.

We live in an era where it’s easier to gamble than it ever has been before.  Does anyone think that’s a good thing?

The (Positive?) Lessons Of Gambling Saturation

In Atlantic City, New Jersey, the newest and largest casino — a $2.4 billion ultra-modern complex called Revel — is closing after operating for less than three years and never turning a profit.  Two other casinos, the Showboat and the Trump Plaza, will be closing later this year, and a fourth casino closed at the beginning of 2014. 

In Ohio, revenues from the state-licensed casinos are down at five of the six casinos that have been open for more than a year.  Casino operators, always on the lookout for that extra shekel, are hoping to win approval for plans to make up for a bit of that lost revenue by putting slot machines in smoking areas so smokers can feed the one-armed bandits while puffing away.

IMG_2931In both places, the cause for the decline in revenue is the same:  competition.  Atlantic City casinos were hurt by the opening of a number of small casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania.  In Ohio, new “racinos” — race tracks that are licensed to operate row after row of slot machines — are coming on line so that by the end of the year the state will have four casinos and seven racinos to compete for the gambling dollar.  Ohio now has gambling outlets throughout the state and in four neighboring states, and casinos can be found in cities and on native American reservations up and down the east coast.

The falling casino revenues and closures are bad news for employees who lose their jobs — Revel had more than 3,000 employees who will need to find new employment — and for government planners who adopted rosy casino tax revenues in their budgets, but it’s not necessarily bad news for the rest of the country.  The struggling fiscal performance of all of the new casinos clearly indicates that there is a finite population of gamblers in the United States, and that pie is not growing.  Perhaps the data means that most Americans would rather get and keep a job, save their hard-earned wages rather than risking them at games of chance, and achieve financial independence the old-fashioned way?  If so, such a show of prudence is encouraging.  Now, if only governmental leaders who are all too happy to adopt budgets bloated with pie-in-the-sky casino revenue projections would begin to exercise the same kind of restraint . . . .

Card Sharks

An Atlantic City casino, the Borgata Casino & Spa, has sued a big-time gambler, claiming that he cheated at cards and won $9.6 million playing baccarat in the process. (Those of you who are James Bond fans, like me, will recall that baccarat is 007’s game of choice.)

The casino alleges that the gambler used a method called “edge sorting” that took advantage of defective cards with patterns on the backs that were not uniform. The lawsuit claims that the gambler noticed the defect and got the dealer to arrange and shuffle the cards in a way that allowed him to use the non-uniform patterns to identify which cards were coming out of the dealer’s shoe.

$9.6 million is a lot of money — but it’s got to be embarrassing for a casino to admit that they didn’t detect that they were being provided with defective cards and were duped by this alleged scheme. Don’t casinos, as a matter of course, take steps to make sure that the cards they are using have uniform patterns on the backs?

It reminds me of my high school days, when boys would gather in the “student lounge” during free periods and play euchre. We didn’t gamble for money, but I remember one of my classmates bringing in a deck of “marked” cards and showing us how you could decipher the marks on the back. I never would have noticed the difference — but then I’m not a casino where gamblers have the opportunity to win millions of dollars.

Poor Pete’s Pity Party

If there is a more pathetic figure in professional sports than Pete Rose, I don’t know who it is.  He lives in Vegas and makes his living by selling his autograph to people who, for reasons only they know, will pay through the nose for the signature of the All-Time Hits Leader.

But Pete is sad.  Because he gambled on baseball, despite the ironclad ban that has existed since Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was  Commissioner, he has been banished from the game and can’t be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.  Now he laments that he was just cursed because gambling was his vice.  He’d be better off, he says, if he’d been an alcoholic, a drug user, or a wife beater, because those vices can be forgiven.

Pete Rose says that he’s “messed up” and is “paying the consequences,” but his recent comments belie any true contrition.  He lied about gambling for years and only admitted it to help sell his autobiography, and now he hopes to make people feel sorry for him.  I don’t, and no one should.

Pete Rose violated the cardinal rule in baseball, and he got what he deserved.  For a guy who played up his reputation as a tough, hard-nosed player, he’s really become a crybaby.  It’s sad.