The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

The bookies in Las Vegas make the Cleveland Browns 6.5 point underdogs to gain their first win of the season Sunday against the Chicago Bears. The week's most competitive game? The oddsmakers like the Dallas Cowboys giving 2.5 points to the Seattle Seahawks. 

Nevada Assemblywoman Maggie CarltonThose numbers are desiged to entice football fans to level the betting playing field and wager evenly on both sides of a game, whether legally, mainly in Las Vegas, or illegally in most of the rest of the country.

And the odds the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in favor of New Jersey being able to legalize sports betting? Based on a pair of sessions at NCSL's Capitol Forum, the smart money seems to be on New Jersey, although you probably couldn't get better than 7-5 odds.

What's at stake? Of the $58 billion wagered last year on NFL and college football games, $56 billion was bet illegally through bookies or online operations, Nevada Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D) told a session on "The Future of Sports Betting."

The Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in Christie vs. NCAA, in which New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) argued that "because the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) prohibits the state from repealing laws restricting sports gambling it amounts to unconstitutional commandeering."

"PASPA, adopted in 1992, makes it unlawful for states and local governments to authorize sports gambling," Lisa Soronen of the State and Local Legal Center told another Forum session.

Lauren Bias of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, which represented New Jersey in the case—one that has spanned more than five years—said the justices "seemed very receptive and interested" in their case, citing several points in oral argument.

The issues at stake, she said, are a state's ability to regulate black market sports betting (bookies and online) and the balance of powers between states and the federal government, i.e., if the federal government can lawfully prevent states from regulating an activity.

Bias noted a shifting tide in support of legalized sports gambling, citing a 2014 New York Times op-ed in which NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Congress should "adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports, subject to strict regulatory requirements and technological safeguards.”

States should be using the potential chance to legalize sports betting to talk about the legal and financial aspects of sports gambling and as an opportunity to see what kind of researching around sports gambling is going to be possible, said Russell Sanna of the National Center for Responsible Gaming, a nonprofit associated with Harvard University that funds research into gambling addiction. He said about 1 percent of the nation's adult population has a gambling disorder.

If states allow sports gambling, could the legislature tax it?

"Our position is they could not," said Sarah Slane, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Gaming Association, which represents casino gambling operators. The organization would like to see PASPA repealed.

"The illegal market wasn't the intent of the law when it was passed," she said.

Office pools for the Super Bowl and NCAA tournament are unlikely to be affected, she said.

"It's what's happening with bookies and offshore operators where you have the bigger numbers," she said. "The Europeans echoed to us that by not having a good regulatory legislative framework in place in some of those countries, it did not shut down the mark market as they had intended."

Carlton echoed the need for strong regulation.

"Good regulatory schemes do not come cheap," she said. "As chairman of  Ways and Means I can tell you it's an expensive position, but it's something you don't want to cut corners on."

Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.