Pro Leagues, Ncaa Sue To Block Del. Sports Bet

Md. Lawmakers Say Single-game Betting Would Give Neighboring State A Better Marketing Tool For Gambling

July 25, 2009|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,

The nation's major professional sports leagues and the NCAA sued Friday to stop Delaware from launching single-game betting - and any wagering on sports other than football - before the NFL season starts this fall.

If a federal judge grants the leagues' demands, Delaware's "sports lottery" would be limited, hampering efforts to balance the state's budget.

A victory for the leagues also would curb, if slightly, an effort among Mid- Atlantic states to expand gambling, which is viewed as a politically safer revenue source than tax increases.

"Delaware would be able to offer something other states can't," said Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "That would give them a marketing tool that nobody else would have. You attract families in which the husband likes to bet on sports games and the wife likes to use slot machines."

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said, "We don't want that on our borders."

Congress banned sports betting in 1992 but grandfathered in four states that previously had it - Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Delaware - with the caveat that the franchise could not be expanded beyond what was then offered.

In the mid-1970s, Delaware ran a lottery in which players marked cards with their projections on a slate of three to 14 NFL games per weekend.

"We're looking to shut down single-game betting because Delaware did not do single-game betting in 1976," said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL, which is leading the lawsuit. "We recognize that under federal law, four states have the right to do sports betting, but we're working to contain it where we can and make states follow the law."

Delaware's former football lottery imploded before the end of its first season after the state's lottery office botched the betting lines on a set of games, which gamblers capitalized on. The state had to draw on an emergency fund to pay off all the winners and then shut down the operation, according to the leagues' lawsuit.

The idea resurfaced this year as a way to plug Delaware's $750 million deficit. Nevada has long run sports betting out of its casinos; Oregon had sports betting for 18 years but gave it up to host a round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament; and Montana recently started a sports lottery that has generated modest sales, according to an April article in The Baltimore Sun.

The leagues allege in the lawsuit that gambling fosters "suspicion and skepticism" in sports. Concerns about threats to the integrity of the game, however, have largely been ignored in Delaware, where there are no professional teams or Division I universities to lead the lobbying effort against the sports lottery.

This year, over the opposition of the leagues, Delaware passed legislation allowing three kinds of betting: spread bets on individual games; over-unders on the total score of a single game; and the "parlay lotteries" that existed in the 1970s, involving selecting over-unders across multiple games.

"We're trying to generate revenues and jobs for Delaware," said Joe Rogalsky, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Markell. Rogalsky described sports gambling as giving Delaware a "competitive advantage" over any state east of the Rockies.

As the legislation worked its way through Delaware's General Assembly, Markell sought an advisory opinion from the state's Supreme Court on the constitutionality of his plan. The court found, as it had in the 1970s, that the chance-driven, parlay lotteries are legal.

But the court also concluded that it lacked enough information to offer an opinion on the constitutionality of single-game wagers. Does chance or skill determine who beats the spread when the Ravens play the Steelers? To be legal in Delaware, the answer must be "chance."

"Any smart gambler will not bet on parlays because they're skewed in favor of the casino and the state, and you're made a sucker beyond belief," said Richard O. Davies, author of Betting the Line; Sports Wagering in American Life. "If I were Delaware, I'd definitely want gambling on individual games because that's the only way they're going to be able to attract intelligent gamblers who do their research."

But Mark Nichols, chairman of the economics department at the University of Nevada-Reno, said Delaware is making "a lot of fuss" over very little money.

"Sports is just a tiny segment of overall gambling, 2 to 3 percent of casino revenue," said Nichols, who has researched the effects of gambling expansions on government revenues. "It's such a tiny fraction of the money, and Delaware has this idea that it's some kind of saving grace for the state, and I don't think it is."

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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