The legislative calendar has slowed to a crawl, a relief amid the busiest year of sports betting bills yet. The big batch of new policy is fairly well-conceived as a whole.
Legislators are increasingly keen on including online/mobile betting in their framework, and they’ve shunned the sports leagues’ demand for an integrity fee across the board. These two trends alone represent a certain understanding of the industry in broad terms.
It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing a few of those states, though. Sports betting is high on the list of the year’s hottest topics, and some lawmakers simply could not resist their urge to meddle. In some cases, these intervening efforts were grossly off-base.
Here are some of the most memorable, lamentable, and absurd storylines involving sports betting policy this year:
Tennessee: Sunday sports betting and slavery?
In a world where state officials often prioritize revenue, one Tennessee lawmaker suggested sacrificing a big chunk of it in exchange for … salvation presumably?
Near the start of the process in March, Rep. Jason Powell proposed a complete ban on Sunday betting. Those who know the US market realize that NFL betting represents the majority of action, and Sunday betting naturally accounts for heavy NFL action.
A committee rejected Powell’s amendment, declining to reserve the Lord’s day. Attempting to tie gambling to religion is objectively a terrible idea. But it was a heck of an amusing suggestion.
But wait …
What if I told you that wasn’t even the most asinine line of conversation about TN sports betting this year? There’s no comfortable way to say this, but another state representative invoked slavery when citing his opposition to expanded gambling.
Rep. Andy Holt, who is white, argued that the state’s appetite for gambling was leading its residents “down a path toward slavery.” Holt delivered his comments to Rep. Rick Staples, who is black, during a committee hearing in April.
Staples responded with grace, explaining that he spent the better part of a year studying issues tied to sports betting. The bill he sponsored became law about a month later.
Louisiana: Filibuster sinks sports betting, DFS
After legalizing daily fantasy sports last year, lawmakers in Louisiana were on the cusp of allowing a vote on full-scale sports betting this spring. And then it all came crashing down in the final minutes of the 2019 session.
Sen. Danny Martiny did the work on sports betting, offering a bill for the second year in a row. As with DFS, legalization ultimately hinged on a referendum at the ballot box. Martiny merely hoped to give voters the option.
The Senate passed the bill with ease on the first day of May before a pair of ill-fated amendments in House Appropriations poisoned the proceedings. The committee insisted on (1) including video poker parlors as licensees and (2) mandating the use of official league data — both of which were non-starters.
The sponsor tried to work that imposter language back out of his bill thereafter, but the battle was lost. An attempt to insert new provisions into two pieces of DFS legislation landed those bills in committee, where the group fully deleted all sports betting language.
The Senate quickly passed one of them, but time ran out on the required mechanism for taxation. The outgoing Martiny took the floor to air his grievances, and his relatively brief comments were enough to push the clock past the 6 p.m. deadline.
Forced into a hard stop, the legislature adjourned for the year without enabling DFS or sports betting. Oops.
Washington D.C.: Nothing to see here …
It’s a shame nobody filibustered the bill in the nation’s capital.
Over a chorus of public concern, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. narrowly approved an expedited, no-bid supplier contract to power the new industry. The District’s own sportsbook will rely on the services of Intralot, a financially desperate company with a chain of subcontractors tied to DC officials.
The oddities surrounding DC sports betting are many:
- The sponsor and spearhead, Councilmember Jack Evans, is the subject of a federal investigation and the target of a recent FBI raid. Evans’ ethics are publicly in doubt amid allegations he used his office for personal gain. Members removed him as Chairman of Finance and Revenue in July. Evans previously worked unsuccessfully with the leagues to include a royalty in his 2018 bill.
- At one point, Chairman Phil Mendelson cast the deciding vote in a committee of which he is not a member. Mendelson was within his right as the council chair, but it was an overt maneuver designed to use brute force to push a contentious contract. He is an Evans defender.
- Intralot is in a state of turmoil exacerbated by the loss of a key contract in Turkey and multiple credit downgrades. Its pitch to lottery officials greatly exaggerated the revenue it will drive to the District. Evans and Mendelson worked diligently to keep the terms of the contract private and heavily redacted. A previous agreement between the two parties spawned a federal investigation in 2012.
- A report from Spectrum Gaming served as the only tangible foundation for the decision to single-source the lottery contract.
The real shame is that bettors in DC won’t have broad access to a traditional, competitive sportsbook. The Intralot product is a fixed-payout sports lottery, and one that is borderline predatory by design.
New York: Playing the blame game
New York is the newest state with a regulated industry, and the response to the July launch has been an overwhelming “meh.” NY sports betting remains limited to upstate casinos after the legislature once again failed to expand the existing law in 2019.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort, nor was optimism in short supply.
The two sponsors teased the betting public all year, publicly stating that their joint bill had the support to pass. They even worked to include their enabling language in the budget package after a nudge from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The Senate is absolved. It passed the sports betting bill by a 57-5 vote in June, just as Sen. Joseph Addabbo said it would. Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, however, could not uphold his end of the deal in the lower chamber. Pretlow repeatedly affirmed that he would, but Speaker Carl Heastie never called the bill for a vote.
Addabbo blamed the Assembly for failure, and the Assembly passed the blame along to the chief executive. Despite his desire get NY sports betting off the ground this year, Cuomo maintains constitutional concerns about mobile wagering. Whether or not they’re valid, those concerns ultimately torpedoed the efforts of the two sponsors. At least two NY lawmakers think the governor’s excuses were exactly that — excuses.
The Empire State is easily the most populous one with legal sports gambling, and online betting would make it the country’s largest market. For now, though, it will only realize a fraction its total revenue potential — both for the state and for its struggling casino operators.
New Jersey: Sports leagues asking for the world
File these tidbits under amusing rather than absurd.
New Jersey led the crusade against the sports leagues, culminating in the US Supreme Court decision to repeal PASPA and the prompt launch of regulated NJ sports betting. In the year-plus since it began taking legal wagers, the Garden State has been the site of several notable inquiries from leagues.
The first was especially laughable, a 2018 request that NJ operators remit an integrity fee to the leagues. No joke: the same leagues that dragged the state through a years-long, $9-million war over sports betting were now begging for a cut of revenue.
You’ll never know if you don’t ask, but lawmakers were happy to show league lobbyists the exit door. In a letter to the governor, Senate President Steve Sweeney called the request an “extortion attempt.”
After its exclusion from NJ sports betting revenue, Major League Baseball went on the offensive by itself. The league asked state officials to prohibit betting on Spring Training games this year, arguing that the focus was generally on development rather than winning. Regulators declined that request too.
It wasn’t just the big boys seeking concessions either. Major League Eating, best known for hot dogs, pushed back against a gambling prohibition on competitive consumption. At least five operators requested approval to offer the market, and the decision is still under review.