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.

Advertisements

Red Rock Biking

Las Vegas is an interesting place, but the surrounding countryside is worth exploring.  Yesterday, our group ventured about a half hour away from the Strip, out to the Nevada version of Red Rock Canyon — it seems like there’s one of those in just about every western state — for a bike tour with Allison and John, the fine folks at redEbike.

First, a word about the basics of the tour.  Allison and John really make it easy.  Allison picked us up at our hotel and drove us out to the Canyon, John gave us a careful but quick training session on the bikes, and on the tour itself Allison led our pack and John followed to make sure that we stayed together.  As a result, there are no issues with getting lost or taking a wrong turn.

Second, you don’t need to be a cycling stud to do this tour.  The redEbike tours use electric bikes, so you won’t need to be huffing and puffing up the inclines.  The bikes have a quiet motor that is triggered by either moving the pedals or a thumb toggle switch on the handlebars, with four speed options.  So long as you know how to ride a bike (and we all know that once you’ve mastered that skill, you never really forget it), you can operate the bikes and enjoy the ride.  After a little training spin around the parking lot to get the hang of changing the speed setting, we were all ready to go.  On the tour itself, I used the pedals rather than the thumb toggle in order to preserve a modicum of self-respect and feel like I’d gotten a decent amount of exercise.

Third, the tour itself is terrific.  You follow a 16-mile track through Red Rock Canyon that takes about four hours.  You very comfortably share a two-lane road with cars on what is predominantly a one-way loop, going up 1100 feet — that’s where those nifty motors come in handy — and then down again.  The 16 miles are divided into bite-sized, three or four mile chunks with stops that allow you to goggle at the surroundings, walk around, and even get a miniature nature tour about how you can use the plants to survive a zombie apocalypse.  (There are bathrooms at several of the stops, too.)

The scenery is absolutely stunning.  The first stop is a red rock expanse that is used by hikers and rock climbers, pictured above, to show you conclusively that you aren’t in the Midwest anymore, and the rest of the scenery is equally striking.  Add in the fresh air, the desert plant life, the feel of sunshine on your back and the wind in your hair, and a few S curves and occasional straightaways where you can let the bike do its thing, and you’ve got a great alternative to neon, smoky casinos, and huge crowds.

Is there any downside to this great little excursion?  Well, you must don a bicycle helmet and simply accept that, for the entire ride, you’ll look like a hopeless nerd — because that’s what bicycle helmets are designed to do.

Thanks to Allison, John, and redEbike for a wonderful, truly memorable experience for our group.  If you are out in Vegas and looking for for a break from the norm, I give it five stars.  You can learn more about the redEbike electric bike tours here.

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.

Ohio’s Quadrennial Electoral Regrets

Here we go again.  We’ve gone through the first part of the presidential campaign, with votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.  The Democratic and Republican fields have narrowed . . . and weirdness prevails.

Let’s face it:  none of these states is really very demographically or culturally representative of the country as a whole, but still they get to be the filters that sift through the candidates for the rest of us.  So we get to see cardigan-wearing candidates yakking at town halls and hugging distraught young people.  We try to understand obscure delegate selection rules — why caucuses, and not outright elections? — and hear about which Republican is going to appeal most to the born-again crowd.  And Dixville North, New Hampshire gets it’s name on the national newscasts, just as it does every four years.

And each result in these early contests gets blown up to titanic proportions, even if the real differences are small.  Consider yesterday’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada.  Hillary Clinton won with 6,238 votes versus Bernie Sanders 5,589 votes.  That’s less than 650 out of less than 12,000 votes, yet now the pundits say HRC has Big Mo on her side.  And 12,000 votes?  In Ohio we get that many people at some high school football games.  Should a few thousand casino workers in Las Vegas and Reno really have such an influence on presidential politics?

Every four years we seem to ask this question — why don’t states like Ohio have a larger role in the presidential selection process? It’s being asked again this year, too.  Ohio is a state that closely mirrors the country as a whole.  It’s got big cities and rural areas, it’s got labor unions and small businesses, it’s ethnically and culturally diverse, and it’s politically diverse, too.  And, perhaps most importantly, every election cycle Ohio ends up being one of the crucial “battleground states,” whereas no candidates are going to Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina when general elections are in the balance and Election Day is drawing near.  Yet, in the primaries, we don’t get to Ohio until after the candidates wade through predominantly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire and largely evangelical states like Iowa and South Carolina, and some candidates who conceivably might be viable have dropped out because they’ve run out or money or failed to appeal sufficiently to the born again contingent.  This year may present the same kind of scenario.

I know, some people will talk about the historic role of Iowa and New Hampshire, or say that it’s good for candidates to start in “retail” settings before they move to “wholesale” politics, but those are just rationalizations for a candidate selection process that just makes no sense.  So this year we say what we say every four years:  why not start the electoral process where it always ends up — in Ohio?

Adding Up The Obamacare Tab

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, its drafters contemplated that states would design their own health care exchanges, with the federal healthcare.gov website serving as a kind of backstop.  That turned out to be a miscalculation.  More than 60 percent of the states — 36 out of 50 — elected not to create their own health care exchanges.

At the time, some critics argued that the decisions of states with Republican governors to refrain from building their own websites was politically motivated.  In retrospect, however, the decisions to eschew developing state-specific health care exchanges seem more like a wise recognition of the limitations of state capabilities, because the experiences of states that did attempt their own websites have been decidedly mixed.

Six of the 14 states that chose to create their own exchanges — Masschusetts, Oregon, Nevada, Maryland, Minnesota, and Hawaii — have had severe functionality problems and have become tremendous cash drains and political albatrosses.  In Massachusetts, Oregon, Nevada, and Maryland alone, the federal government has paid at least $474 million to support the establishment of non-functional exchanges, and that cost total seems certain to increase significantly.  In those states, Democratic politicians are blaming the website contractors and threatening litigation, and Republicans are saying that the states never should have attempted to build the exchanges in the first place.

Obamacare has become such a political football that every fact and development gets spun to death — but if we can’t learn from the current reality, and recognize that mistakes were made in the legislation and its conception, then we are just compounding our problems.  In all, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that about $5 billion in federal funds that have been shelled out to states to allow them to assess whether to create state-specific exchanges and then, in some cases, to support their creation.  That’s an enormous sum of money, and it is becoming clear that a significant part of it has been wasted.  Whatever happens with Obamacare, let’s at least hope that in the future we refrain from enacting statutes that require states to develop large-scale, complicated technological systems, on their own, with the federal government picking up the tab.  As the mounting Obamacare costs demonstrate, that approach is fraught with peril.

The Economics Of Early Primaries

Don’t look now, but states are jockeying to move up the dates of their primaries, caucuses, and other electoral contrivances.  Florida has indicated that it is going to move its primary to January 31.  If it does so, expect South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Iowa to follow suit, so they can maintain their current positions in the presidential pecking order.  Such a result could mean the Iowa caucuses happen on January 9, 2012.  Happy New Year!  It’s time to vote!

It’s silly to be voting in January, 10 months before the actual election.  No rational person would want to front-load the process because it increases the risk that a flukey candidate might get on a roll and knock everyone out of the race, only to be exposed months later as a hapless lightweight who isn’t ready for prime time.  Rick Perry’s recent bumbling, fumbling, stumbling performance at a Florida debate aptly demonstrates why it makes sense to draw out the process, to give the candidates the chance to mature and to give the public a reasonable amount of time to get to know who they’re voting for.

So why is there this irresistible impetus to keep moving things up?  States might claim it’s to maintain a tradition or because they want to have a say in selecting the candidates, but I think the real reason is money.  Huge sums are spent on political campaigns these days, and the media flocks to the early primary states.  Early primaries have more candidates and more campaigns spending cash, and states want to get their share.  So why not schedule an early primary and then sit back and watch the hordes of candidates, staffers, consultants, pundits, and reporters descend, fill your hotels, restaurants and bars, buy the TV and radio spots and employ the printing presses, and pump up those hospitality and sales tax receipts?

Early primaries are good business.

Not Serious

After posting a piece this morning, immediately below, about why the “bipartisan budget commission” is a bogus idea that reflects badly on the capabilities of the President and the Congress, hours later I read this piece about how the President would announce today, in Nevada, $1.5 billion in new spending to “help spur local solutions” to the housing foreclosure problem in five states:  Nevada, Arizona, California, Michigan, and Florida.  What could be a clearer indication of why the “bipartisan budget commission” is a joke?

We’ve now seen how things will work.  The President will fly around the country, campaigning for Democratic Senators and Representatives and announcing new spending in their states and districts.  In the meantime, the “heavy lifting” of deficit reduction will be left for out-of-office political has-beens like former Senator Alan Simpson, who will be powerless to do anything other than recommend methods to reduce the deficit.  We all know how this will play out — the new spending will occur, while any proposed spending cuts won’t ever be enacted.

I sympathize with people who have lost their homes because they lost their jobs.  But how many of the people in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida who are experiencing foreclosure problems fall into that category?  How many of them stretched too far in buying their homes, or hoped to “flip” the houses when they bought in what used to be super-heated housing markets, or misrepresented their assets and income when they applied for their home loans?  How many of the banks involved just made bad loans?  Why should taxpayers in Ohio bail such people out, particularly when we have to borrow even more money to do it?

I think President Obama has shown his true stripes.  He doesn’t care about budget deficits or the federal debt, he cares about politics.  He doesn’t have the stomach to make the tough choices  because he cannot stand to suffer the political consequences that inevitably will result.  In that regard, note the sentence in the fourth paragraph of the linked article:  “He will be back in town-hall mode, a venue that aides say allows him to connect with people and distance himself from the messy process of Washington governing.” What could be a clearer indication that President Obama is taking the easy way out?