Gambling beyond Nevada: Delaware eyes sports bets

Washington, D.C. – Nevada is now the only state where a gambler can walk into a casino and bet USD 10 on either the Dallas Mavericks or the Miami Heat to win the next game in the NBA Finals.

But there are three other states that are exempt from a federal ban on sports betting, Delaware, Montana and Oregon.

And Delaware may want some of the action.

„How many billions, legally and illegally, are bet on March Madness in the United States every year?“ Delaware state Sen. George Bunting said last week.

„You can go to your local country club and see people laying off bets and everyone turns their heads,“ the Democrat said, referring to the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament. „That’s revenue states and voters are not receiving. Why can’t we handle sports betting like we handle the lottery?“

Ironically, Bunting does not like gambling.

„Personally, I’ve worked hard against gambling, and originally I was not enthralled with this,“ Bunting said. „It’s a shame that we, as a country, have to depend on gambling, but it’s a fact.“

Bunting decided to introduce a sports gambling bill last May after a constituent, who was a fellow Vietnam War veteran, persuaded him Delaware could reap substantial revenues by legalizing sports betting.

It all goes back to 1992 when Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which prohibited the expansion of betting on professional or college athletic events in the United States.

Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon were exempted from the law because all four states already conducted or were considering the legalization of some form of sports betting.

Oregon still operates a sports lottery that is similar to an office pool.

Oregonians can drive to a local supermarket, put money into a machine and pick at least three National Football League games according to a point spread.

But last year, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that will eliminate betting on NFL games beginning in 2007.

„The NCAA would not stage any big events in Oregon based on (the state’s legalization of sports betting),“ said Kerry Tymchuk, chairman of the Oregon Lottery Commission.

Oregon Lottery spokesman Chuck Baumann said betting on the NFL games totals about USD 13 million a year.

Montana allows sports betting pools with a payout limited to USD 500 and some fantasy sports wagering, said Tom Oberweiser, a Montana Justice Department investigator who helps regulate gambling in the state.

„Bars offer this as a way to get people to come in,“ Oberweiser said. „Montana has no plans to expand its limited sports betting.“

So that leaves Delaware as the only potential challenger to the betting monopoly of Nevada sports books.

But Bunting said he is pessimistic that it will ever happen.

„My bill is going nowhere,“ he said. „And I would say its chances are slim to none.“

The reason is that the owners of three Delaware horse racing tracks, which have thrived since adding slot machines in the 1990s, do not want the competition from legalized sports betting. Slots have revived the once-dormant horse-racing industry in Delaware and the tracks are willing to spend millions to lobby against his bill, Bunting said.

But that scenario could change.

„It all boils down to whether Maryland legalizes slot machines,“ Bunting said.

For almost his entire first term, Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a Republican, has tried unsuccessfully to legalize slot machines partly to bolster his state’s horse racing tracks, which are losing millions to Delaware racinos.

Bunting thinks it’s inevitable that Maryland will eventually legalize slots to remain competitive not only with Delaware but Pennsylvania and other states in the Atlantic region.

„Once, the Delaware tracks start losing money, and they are going to if these other states come on line, they are going to look for other options like sports betting,“ Bunting said.

„The ace in the hole for us is that we don’t have to seek approval from Congress because we already have the exemption for sports betting,“ he said.