WILMINGTON, Del. -- With the pro football playoffs approaching, Jim Nielsen could think of nothing more appealing than a drive to Delaware.
No, his beloved Philadelphia Eagles had not moved across the state line. Nielsen and his son just wanted to add a little spice to their football watching, by betting on the games.
Before this season, that would've required a search for offshore bookmakers or a flight to Las Vegas. But now, eager NFL wagerers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and other states can simply visit one of Delaware's three slots parlors to take advantage of the nation's newest state-licensed sports book.
"I'm gonna go with the Bengals, the Pats and the Packers," Nielsen murmured into his cell phone, looking for reassurance from a football-wise buddy. He refused to bet on the game between his Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys, deeming it unwise to mix love and money.
NFL betting has already proved a boon for Delaware's economy, attracting those who used to bet elsewhere and luring new handicappers such as the Nielsens. Delaware launched the new lottery service in September, in part because of increased casino competition among other mid-Atlantic states, and has netted more than $1.3 million already.
But the betting comes with limitations. Delaware is one of only four states allowed by federal law to hold sports betting, so such wagering isn't likely to come to Maryland. And at Delaware's slots parlors - Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway - sports bets must be made in multigame pools and are limited to the NFL.
Delaware Park released its betting cards (players must pick a parlay of at least three games) for the playoffs on Tuesday. Injury reports and weather conditions remained uncertain, but that didn't stop the Nielsens and others from filling out cards and handing them to cashiers dressed in referee jerseys. Though Delaware Park is dominated by slots players and horse wagerers on weekdays, the trickle of football bettors becomes a rush on the weekend, officials said.
Maryland license plates dotted the parking lot on Tuesday, but most NFL bettors hailed from Delaware or just over the border in Pennsylvania. Vernon Kirk, who oversees sports betting for the Delaware lottery, doesn't have hard data on the geographical distribution of bets but said many mail-in prize claims come from Maryland and other surrounding states.
Kirk isn't sure if Delaware Park will be busier than usual this weekend, with both the Ravens and Eagles in action. "We're in uncharted waters with all of this," he said.
Fans who place their bets - minimum wager $2 - on the morning of games can watch their fortunes rise and fall on the bank of two-dozen widescreen televisions overlooking the wagering floor. A towering electronic board shows the latest odds in glowing red and green. It's a small-scale version of the popular sports books at Las Vegas casinos, and the scene can be festive on weekends.
"It just makes watching the games better," said Mike Brown, who lives a few minutes from the track and watches the games there with buddies from as far away as Virginia. "It can make you happy when you're winning, and sad when you're losing, but you're just more into it either way."
Brown was eager to bet on the playoffs, with their tight point spreads and high intensity. As of Tuesday, he hadn't decided what to do on the Ravens-Patriots game. New England is tough at home, he said, but he loved watching Joe Flacco sling passes for the University of Delaware.
"I like the Patriots," he said. "But I might bet the Ravens on another card just to cover myself."
Gordon Holley of New Castle, Pa. enjoys the sports book so much that he stops by Delaware Park almost every day to check the latest odds. A cousin suggested that Holley go during the third week of the NFL season. He won $130, so he was hooked.
Betting has made Holley watch NFL football with far more intensity. "It used to be that they only game I watched was the Eagles. But now, I'm watching every game."
Asked how his wife feels about his new interest, he said, "She's fine as long as I give her money every Sunday to go shopping."
Though sports betting is prohibited in most states under the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, it is allowed in Delaware, Nevada, Montana and Oregon because some form of legalized sports gambling had already existed there.
In 1976, Delaware offered sports betting on NFL games for one season but discontinued the practice. Back then it offered parlay bets, in which three games are wagered at once.
This time, Delaware sought to offer single-game betting as well, and wanted to offer betting for all sports, professional and amateur. But the four major pro sports leagues and the NCAA filed a federal lawsuit last July to prohibit the state from launching that type of sports lottery.