Delaware wants bookies -- and sports betting

Mar 31, 2009 5:04 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

State moves to legalize sports bets

Las Vegas may keep secrets to itself, but it is about to lose one of its treasured personal properties.

The state’s monopoly on sports betting appears about to disappear, as Delaware – one of the three other states besides Nevada that was grandfathered from the federal legislation banning betting on sports – is preparing to dive into the pool.

The governor of Delaware, Jack Markell (pictured), is determined to bring sports betting to his small state. Last week, representatives of the NCAA – the National Collegiate Athletic Association that oversees collegiate sports in this county – and officials of the National Football League, visited the state, hoping to convince lawmakers not to approve the governor’s wishes.

Markell called their visit "retaliatory and inconsistent," and was quick to invoke Nevada as part of the inconsistency. He reminded the NCAA of the bowl game played in Vegas each year. The NCAA and NFL were joined in part by Delaware’ three racetracks – Dover Downs, Harrington Raceway and Delaware Park – who do not oppose sports betting per se but want it limited to existing gambling facilities – their track racinos.

Markell then went public, sending a long letter to media that outlined his reasoning.

He began by noting the state government faced a $750 million shortfall, which amounts to fully 25% of Delaware’s entire budget. He called it one of the worst shortfalls in the country, based on its relation to state size, and said that meanwhile he had to balance the budget by June 30.

In doing so, he made clear he was not taking action to improve the quality of life for Delaware’s tracks, all of which have racinos. He said he has listened to their arguments and reviewed their commissioned studies and reports as to the benefits of sports betting. But he also made clear he did not consider their welfare his problem, saying they had been granted exclusivity free from state competition and had, according to his figures, garnered over $600 million more than the state received from slots since 2001. To close that gap, he proposes increasing the state’s share of racinos "to be on par with our surrounding states." Markell concluded by writing, "So let’s be clear: under my proposal, the three racinos are projected to make an additional $41.7 million in revenues, over and above the $248 million they are already projected to make next fiscal year."

His proposal calls for as many 10 casinos in the small state, including the three already licensed, but not limited to them.

Markell said the three track racinos have complained, arguing that they want the sports lottery and table gaming on an exclusive basis, with no change in the current business relationship with the state.

"While I respect their business motives," he wrote, "my job as governor is to secure the best deal for taxpayers," and he said he felt he was dealing fairly with the tracks.

Markell said that in the end, he recognized his proposal required approval from the General Assembly, and he urged that body to support his plan.

In nearby New Jersey, meanwhile, the state’s horsemen, in both thoroughbred and harness racing, are supporting a bill calling for repeal of the federal law barring sports betting everywhere other than the four states in which it was legal before the ban became law.

One of those horsemen, Wall Streeter Michael Gulotta, told a Senate panel considering the issue, that sports betting would enhance tax revenues significantly.

In a dramatic plea, he said, "Rarely in life are there opportunities for so many parties to enjoy simultaneous victories, and add thousands of jobs in the state." He went on to say sports betting would benefit the state, the people of New Jersey and preservation of its green space.

The latter claim might surprise those tens of thousands who judge Jersey by its bustling Newark airport and surrounding oil refineries and docks, but as a former resident I can attest to the beauty of other areas that air travelers only see from 30,000 feet up.

It is doubtful if the Jersey push will get too far, but a betting man might safely wager a bob or two that Delaware will soon join Nevada as a site where one can legally bet on and root for the old home team.

I can hear the cry now: "Go Northwestern. You’re 20 to 1."