March Madness prompts renewed call for legalized sports betting in NJ

As the first week of March Madness kicks off, it’s just another example of the popularity of sports betting. The American Gaming Association estimates Americans will bet more than $10 billion on the upcoming 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. They say 97 percent of that money will be bet illegally.

“It’s illegal in 37 of 50 states. That means that in some states it could even be considered a felony, so that’s crazy,” said Casey Clark, a spokesperson for the American Gaming Association. “New Jersey has been a real driver and a real champion for gaming for a long time. Certainly a driver in the challenge to PASPA.”

In 1992, the federal government prohibited single-game sports betting in almost every state except Nevada and a few others through the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, otherwise known as PASPA.

Because of that, the American Gaming Association estimates Americans are betting at least $150 billion illegally on sports every year.

“Obviously, if organized crime makes a lot of money, they can do a lot of bad things,” said Rep. Frank Pallone. “It just seemed to make sense for the state to, sort of, rein it in and tax it and make some revenue from it in some ways.”

Pallone explained, in 2011, New Jersey voters passed a referendum allowing sports betting. The NCAA sued the state, claiming it violated the federal prohibition on sports betting, but former Gov. Chris Christie argued the prohibition was unconstitutional.

“The federal government really can’t tell the states what to do with regard to something like this, which is a state matter,” said Pallone.

Now, New Jersey and other states are waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling on Christie v. NCAA.

“In my opinion it’s very selfish on their part. They claim that this has something to do with morality,” said Pallone.

On the NCAA’s website, there’s a statement saying it opposes all forms of sports wagering because it “ … has the potential to undermine the integrity of sports contests and jeopardizes the welfare of student athletes and the intercollegiate athletics community.”

The NFL commissioner also said in a previous report, his league is primarily concerned with the integrity of the game.

“Fantasy sports is essentially the same thing, but it’s an exception to this federal prohibition. And, so some of the leagues that are bringing suit have also invested and owned the fantasy sports programs. To me, I think it’s just financial,” said Pallone.

But there have been signs some leagues like the NBA are becoming more open to the idea of legalizing sports betting. The NBA proposed incorporating an integrity fee, meaning they’d get a cut of the action, a percentage of the amount bet.

“What you end up with is not being able to offer sports betting in a way that is competitive with the illegal market,” said Clark. “We need to get some sensible policies in place that allow everyone to benefit, that drives the illegal market out of business, and allows American consumers to do what they’re already doing, but do it in a safe and legal way.”

“I think the leagues are very oriented toward who’s going to make money, and whether they’re going to make money, and that’s why they continue the suit,” said Pallone.

Money aside, how do Americans feel about ending the sports betting ban? According to a Washington Post survey, the country is fairly split on the issue with 55 percent in favor.