After the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday allowing states to legalize sports betting, a friend asked, “Does this mean the end of bookies?” The answer is no, for a reason I can explain with this story.
Several years ago, I was in Florida, playing poker at the West Palm Beach Kennel Club. It was the first time I’d ever been to a dog track, and I thought they only raced at night, so when I was startled by a blur of gray rushing by the window in front of me, it took me a moment to figure out that they also ran during the day. Yet I was surprised that very few people had gone outside to watch the race, and I soon discovered why. They could see the whole thing — as well as every race being run (with horses or dogs) at other tracks around the country — on the TVs hanging all over the place. So why interrupt their poker games?
Occasionally, one of them would get up and walk ten feet to the betting window to get something down on some race, somewhere. But the guy next to me, who wasn’t much of an action player when it came to poker, was making a lot of bets on races without ever getting up from his chair. No, there were no mobile devices then, nor roving bet-takers with a machine that printed out your receipt at your seat. This guy was using his phone every few minutes to call his bookie and make a wager. After observing this for an hour or so, I turned to him and said, “I know this is none of my business, but I’m curious. Why don’t you just go over to the window to get your bets down?” He looked at me for a few seconds and then answered, “Because the track won’t give me credit. They want the money up front. But I only have to settle up with my guy (his bookie) once a week. Until then, I can get all my bets down without laying out a penny.”
That won’t change when states — besides Nevada, the only place it’s currently legal — allow you to bet on football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, etc. Believe me, with billions of dollars currently being wagered illegally on sports in the US alone, the states will rush to legalize it because of the tax revenue it will bring in — not from the bookies, but from casinos and other businesses that will want a piece of the action.
However, don’t buy the bullshit that the extra money will be used by the states to bolster education or anything else. Missourians fell for that lie when it came to legalizing casinos more than a quarter-century ago. They were told that the money raised by taxes on gaming revenues would go to education. What they weren’t told was that while the casino money was earmarked for school districts, the legislators in Jefferson City merely reduced the education budget from the general revenue fund by an equal amount. So there was no windfall for teachers and students. If there’s another influx of gaming money from sports wagering, you can be sure it won’t go where they say it will go — instead, the GOP-run state government will no doubt give another tax cut to the one-percenters, leaving necessary infrastructure repair and school funding with a worse future than a quarterback drafted by the Cleveland Browns.
Other than the NBA — whose commissioner, Adam Silver, has for years has promoted allowing regulated betting on basketball — the major sports leagues (NFL, NHL, MLB) have opposed the legalization of sports betting for a long time, worried about the impact of criminal concerns tampering with the outcome of games. But if that isn’t already happening underground and offshore, why would it change once the law is on its side? Even in Las Vegas, where there was once a prohibition on betting for or against the UNLV college basketball team, the NHL has moved in with the Vegas Golden Knights (currently having a remarkable first season), and the NFL is next, with the Raiders ready to move from Oakland for the 2020 season — and no one has even suggested there be a law barring wagers on those local teams.
Will this lead to more Americans betting on sports? Probably, but it was never the government’s job to limit what we do with our recreational dollars. The fact that you can buy as many lottery tickets as you want (a gambling system run by each state) but can’t legally get down a few bucks on tonight’s Cardinals-Twins game is ludicrous. What it might do is lessen the number of people who go to Vegas during March Madness or Super Bowl weekend, because why travel all the way there when you can get as much action on the games as you like in your hometown, legally? And it will hurt some of the off-shore online betting sites, too.
That being said, betting on a game does increase your interest, even when it’s not a team from your city that you normally care about. What other reason could there possibly be for watching a Hawks-Magic or Sabres-Senators game — or any team vs. the Marlins? You could actually see TV ratings for those lame teams go up, thanks entirely to the gamblers tuning in. Speaking of TV, Al Michaels will finally get to mention the spread during the broadcast, rather than referring to it in code. Meanwhile, the owners of sports bars may see more business from bettors who can’t get a certain game on their cable system but will go out to sweat their wagers over nachos and a few beers.
On the other hand, you’ll see a big increase in guys (it’s almost all men) touting their ability to pick winners, telling you who to bet on and which teams have the best trends. Before you take their advice, ask yourself if anyone with a real edge would be sharing their secrets with the public for a few bucks more. By the way, my skepticism about them does not include sites that will give you better data to analyze so you can win your fantasy football league or office pool. Information that assists in decision-making is good, guaranteed-prediction claims are not.
As for the bookies, their business will be hurt, but not eliminated — until someone else is willing to offer credit to their regular customers.