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.

How Are Those Ohio Casinos Doing?

Earlier this month, the Hollywood Casino opened on the outskirts of Columbus.  About 25,000 gamblers showed up for the opening day festivities.

In 2009, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the construction of four casinos — one each in Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, and Cincinnati.  When the constitutional amendment was considered in 2009, state officials estimated that the 33 percent tax on gross casino revenues from the four casinos, plus approved video lottery terminals, would produce $470 million annually in tax revenue.  The promise of that kind of tax contribution, plus the jobs the casinos would create, caused Ohio voters to end their long-standing opposition to casino gambling in the state.

The Columbus casino is the third to open, following casinos in Cleveland and Toledo.  It’s early yet, but the trend lines in Cleveland and Toledo aren’t knocking anyone’s socks off.  For both of those casinos, June was the first full month of operation — and also was the high point for revenue, which has declined every month since June.  In Cleveland, revenue has declined from $26.1 million in June to $21.1 million in September; in Toledo, revenue has dropped from $20.4 million in June to $15.9 million in September.  The casino operators and experts say that the novelty of a new casino wears off and it takes a while for standard gambling patterns to get settled, and that the Ohio casinos might not follow the patterns seen in other locations.  The casinos also are tweaking their operations as they learn their markets; in Cleveland, for example, the Horseshoe Casino is now formally welcoming bus tours and providing some slots credits to entice bus visitors.

A few months won’t tell the tale, of course, but you have to wonder if we’ve reached the casino saturation point in this country, and there just isn’t that large of a market for more casino gambling.