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Nevada gains support in bet ban war

May 15, 2001 10:12 AM

Once a big underdog, Nevada is shortening the odds in its battle against the NCAA’s proposed college betting ban. If the books were posting a line today, it would be even money.

Working both sides of the aisle, Senators John Ensign and Harry Reid say they’ve virtually blocked Sen. John McCain, the ban’s sponsor, from attaching his bill to an education bill.

"There’s an overwhelming response from both parties that it doesn’t belong in the education bill," Ensign said through a spokeswoman.

Amid the industry’s counter-punching, Reid now rates McCain’s chances for success in the Senate at only about "50-50." Indeed, observers see the NCAA drive going in reverse.

With time running out before the summer recess, McCain and the NCAA appear to be in worse shape than they were last year. Earlier this month, Ensign almost toppled McCain in his own committee with an amendment preserving the authority of Nevada sports books to accept college sports wagers. The motion failed on a 10-10 vote. Last year, the tally was 17-4 in McCain’s favor.

The tightening margin reflects the Silver State delegation’s success in peeling off McCain’s support. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who is no friend of gambling, announced earlier this year that he would support a Nevada-sponsored alternative that calls for a national study of illegal gambling. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who schedules floor votes, was one of the 10 senators who supported Ensign’s amendment. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is also opposed to McCain’s gambit on the education bill.

The outlook is even rosier in the House, where members tend to view McCain with a mixture of suspicion and jealousy. Rep. Shelley Berkley has been busily wooing colleagues to Las Vegas for tours of sports books. A number of junketeers, including Rep. John Conyers, a ranking Michigan Democrat and frequent critic of gambling, flipped their votes in favor of Nevada. On the Republican side, Rep. Tom Davis, chairman of the Republican Campaign Congressional Committee, pledged to prevent the betting ban from getting to a floor vote.

"They’ll jam us in the Senate and hope for leadership in the House," predicts Mike Sloan, Mandalay Resorts’ vice president for government affairs. Sloan says both parties’ interest in winning Nevada’s new third congressional seat works to the state’s advantage.

"We’re playing both sides. It’s a time-tested strategy," he says.

But McCain, a long-time Vegas bettor with burning presidential ambition, isn’t folding, and he has a powerful ally in the NCAA, which has rounded up support from big-name coaches, including Gene Keady, Roy Williams, Lou Holtz and Tom Osbourne, now a Republican congressman from Nebraska.

Feeling defensive, state regulators recently considered slapping a $550 limit on college sports bets. But that was quickly quashed amid concerns it would be tantamount to admitting guilt or defeat.

In 2000, $2.3 billion was wagered in Nevada sports books, with casinos retaining $124 million, or about 5.33 percent. Total casino revenues totaled $9.6 billion last year.

Gamers have responded by accusing the NCAA of exploiting collegiate athletes with its multibillion-dollar television contracts. MGM Mirage President Terri Lanni went on to label the association’s regulations "dictatorial."

Sloan marvels at what he calls McCain’s "hypocrisy."

"It’s ironic. The guy came out here for years. He says he’s concerned about 18-year-olds being victimized, but he has no problem approving Indian casinos where 18-year-olds can bet."

In its states’ rights fight, Nevada may have gotten a boost from the NCAA itself last month. The association’s executive committee, in a demonstration of political correctness, ruled that Mississippi could not host future championship tournaments because residents voted to retain the Confederate emblem on their state flag. Senate leader Lott, hailing from Mississippi, may not cotton to such blackballing.

The NCAA effort suffered another blow this month when Doris Dixon, the point person in its legislative campaign, abruptly resigned after the 10-10 vote.

The NCAA did not respond to inquiries about her successor.