Jimmy Vaccaro, a 41-year veteran of race and sportsbooks, did not always believe the day would come when sports betting would be widely legal anywhere in the U.S. other than his adopted home state of Nevada.
That day has not yet come. But Vaccaro — among the truly legendary Vegas bookmakers who now runs the race and sports marketing division for the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa — has watched as the culture has slowly become more accepting of sports wagering.
“The culture has changed, and a lot of the older people who were dead against (legal sports betting) are dead,” said Vaccaro, a 70-year-old Pittsburgh native who began managing sports books in 1975.
Younger generations “are going to end up being congressmen or assemblymen or whatever who say, ‘Hell, I did this and there is no harm in it,’” he added.
That time could be now. Vaccaro, like many in his business, is waiting with anticipation to learn the fate of legalized sports betting in a New Jersey rehearing. Many believe that case could have a cascading effect, opening the door for more states to legalize sports gambling.
Other states also have legalized sports betting on their radar, including Pennsylvania, where a bill takes aim at the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which bans sports betting in all but five states.
Yes, there does seem to be a groundswell of support.
“New Jersey is big,” Vaccaro said. “Everybody is sitting back and waiting to see what the verdict is there.
“I think this will be the cycle. It’ll happen sooner or later, but it is going to be a long time if it doesn’t happen now.”
Fuel for legalization
The assumption is that if New Jersey gets a favorable ruling in February other states will soon follow.
“If New Jersey does it, how long do you think it will take to New York to do it?” Vaccaro said. “Because they don’t want all their people driving down there (to New Jersey). How long do you think it would take for Ohio or Pennsylvania to get into the loop also?”
One reason why legalized sports betting might be gaining support — beyond adding tax revenue into state coffers and in the case of New Jersey giving a boost to a languishing gambling industry in Atlantic City — is that it will add some police to the beat.
This could be of increasing interest in the wake of new reporting on the tennis’ match-fixing scandal.
Vaccaro knows the value of this intimately. When he was managing the book at The Mirage in the 1990s he noticed unusual betting patterns on Arizona State basketball games. He alerted authorities, and that eventually lead to the uncovering of one of the most infamous point-shaving scandals in college basketball history.
Besides the value of bringing sports betting out of the shadows, complaints over the harms of sports betting are overblown, Vaccaro said.
“We’re a business,” Vaccaro said. “We’re regulated as stringent as any other industry in the country. And when those people go and (younger people) who dabbled in fantasy (sports) and dabbled with making a bet, you find out that it is not this death knell that some portray it to be.”
Many in Nevada supportive
At one time Nevada bookmakers might have seen legalized sports betting in other states as a threat.
Earlier this year, Nevada passed legislation that paved the way for Nevada books to capitalize on legalization in other states.
“We’ve been pushing it an inch at a time,” Vaccaro said. “Way back when, Nevada could care less about any other states having sports betting on a single game, because they were competition. If you lived in California you had to come to Nevada. …. That was always an advantage. Now everybody is perking up and saying ‘Hopefully we can do this all over the country.’ ”
Nevada casinos — which have always leaned on sportsbooks more as a marketing tool to draw gamblers inside rather than as pure money maker — see potential in other jurisdictions.
Nevada books take in some $4 billion annually. But some estimates put illegal betting with bookies and overseas companies at as much as $400 billion. With a model that looks more like the highly profitable legal sportsbooks in Europe, Nevada books could conceivably cash in on some of that money.
Those sports betting apps, which are restricted to taking bets only within state lines, could conceivably be used in other legal jurisdictions, Vaccaro said. And Nevada sportsbooks could be tapped to manage sportsbooks, too.
“We would love to be a harbor for a state, and just let them sit back as we run their sportsbooks,” Vaccaro said. “First of all, the people here in Nevada do it better than anybody else. And if they had any sense they would just plug into us like a satellite sportsbook and go from there.”
Sports betting a matter of time?
Ultimately, the momentum to legalize is palpable.
A slim majority of New Jersey residents support legalized sports betting, and Vaccaro suspects that number will grow.
“Go watch the game and jump up and down, and next time you watch a game, go bet $20 on it,” Vaccaro said. “Now you’ll really be into it. And it’s not going to break you one way or the other. But now you’re going to be general manager, you’re going to be coach and you’re going to be quarterback. The entertainment value is just overwhelming and that can’t be denied anymore.”
He might be right.
Vaccaro said he has long wanted “to see legalized gambling across the country.”
Right now, he seems closer than he has ever been to getting his wish.