The New Jersey Assembly last week approved asking voters to legalize professional sports betting in Atlantic City casinos, a move opposed by the National Football League and one that would have to overcome federal law.
But as the bill passed, sponsors said they would move to rework it to also allow in-person sports betting at three horse racing tracks and on NCAA contests that don’t involve teams from New Jersey colleges and universities.
"The purpose behind allowing in-person sports betting in Atlantic City is to draw more people into New Jersey and protect the casinos from increased out-of-state competition," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli. "We should be no less vigilant in seeking to protect our horse racing industry."
The Assembly voted 58-17 to approve the bill. Burzichelli said it would be amended in the Senate, which hasn’t considered it.
Proponents estimate as much as $800 million could be wagered annually on pro sports in Atlantic City casinos, which have been hurt by competition from slots parlors in neighboring states.
Various estimates of illegal sports gambling in the U.S. range from $80 billion to $380 billion per year, and in recent years, New Jersey has had several high-profile illegal gambling arrests involving alleged mobsters, casino employees, a state trooper and NHL hockey coach Rick Tocchet.
But federal law restricts legalized sports betting to four states: Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon. Only Nevada enables betting on professional and college games.
Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, D-Camden, said the federal law can be challenged.
"It may be the legal equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, but fighting for legalized pro sports gaming is a play New Jersey can’t afford to pass up," Greenwald said.
Sen. Jim Whelan, the Senate wagering committee chairman and a former Atlantic City mayor, said his panel may consider the bill.
"It’s something I’ve supported for Atlantic City for quite sometime," said Whelan, D-Atlantic. "The big obstacle to making it a reality, though, is the federal ban on sports betting for New Jersey, which won’t go away just by our passing a bill."
The effort comes as Atlantic City’s casinos recorded the first decline in gambling revenue since they opened in 1978. The 11 casinos took in $4.9 billion last year, down from $5.2 billion in 2006.
The decline was blamed on new slots parlors in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York.
Joseph Corbo, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said the casinos support the legislation. Joseph Lupo, vice president of operations for the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, noted the recent Super Bowl weekend was a huge event in Las Vegas, but not Atlantic City. About $92 million was bet at Nevada’s 174 sports books on the Super Bowl this year.