Delaware approves legal sports lottery

May 19, 2009 5:05 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

But court may have final say on sports bets

Nevada, and Las Vegas in particular, lost their exclusive hold on sports betting in America last week. After a week of posturing and politicking, the Delaware Senate voted 17-2 in favor and sent the measure to Gov. Jack Markell, who promptly signed it in glee.

Markell had promised early on, before taking office and after, that he favored sports bets. He got his way. Well, almost. During the legislative battle, a few of his pet projects – like 10 new betting sites and two new casinos – were shot out from under him in a compromise to get the bill passed.

There are three racetracks in Delaware, a very small state. One, Delaware Park, races thoroughbreds only. The other two, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway, race harness horses. Dover Downs also happens to race automobiles, and if you want to win a trivia bet on which is the largest track in America, Dover Downs is your answer. Not Santa Anita or Arlington Park, but Dover Downs, with 170,000 seats surrounding the entire track.

As might be expected, the three Delaware tracks have considerable political clout. While all three saw the dollar signs flashing over sports betting, they also saw competition just down the road. And they were not happy about the state increasing its share of slots revenues by 6.5 points. In the end they won a few and lost a few, not unusual in politics or racing.

There will be no new casinos, and there was "a commitment" to study table games for the track racinos "as soon as possible." That does not translate into "next week" or "next month." It means "when we get around to it," which could be months or years.

In New York, for example, it is now eight years since the legislature passed its slots bill, and Aqueduct racetrack still has no racino, nor even a shovel in the ground. It almost had a builder in Delaware North, the huge sports catering firm that won the first round of bidding, but that big firm, based in Buffalo, NY, could not come up with the $370 million it promised before the economic roof caved in, and was disqualified as the winner, like a beauty contest winner who had the figure but not the answers to key questions.

Aqueduct Racino, Bidding Version Two, ended last week, with seven entities declaring they were in. Development Associates, a subsidiary of Steve Wynn’s Resorts Limited, is one of them. So is Penn National Gaming, one of the most successful racing and gaming companies in the country. And so, according to late bulletins not quite clear, is MGM Mirage, which apparently is joining with the Peebles Corporation, the nation’s largest African-American real estate company.

Whether this means that Peebles is pulling out of its affiliation with Aqueduct Gaming is not certain, because the announcement of MGM Mirage’s entrance into the fray said that if their bid with Peebles turns out to be a winner, the Aqueduct racino would be named MGM Grand at Aqueduct. How that might play with Steve Wynn can be imagined. If his group is the winner, one good suggestion, given its racetrack location, might be Wynn Here. We’re fairly certain Steve would not object.

But back to Dover Downs, where the sports betting battle is not quite over. The National Football League, in its pristine mode expressing concern over betting on professional sports, has talked of taking the Delaware sports betting matter to court. As passed, the bill is supposed to be a sports lottery, but the NFL says that lotteries are characterized by chance and not skill, and that what Delaware will be offering will represent skill. You can handicap that one yourself. Betting on professional football? Horrors!

There were other interesting developments last week.

In Connecticut, legislators made much noise but walked softly on the controversial no-smoking issue at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. The solons backed away from action on a no-smoking bill, the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee deciding it would not act on the bill, thus allowing the no-smoking issue to die in silence.

In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist signed the compromise bill that gives the Seminole Nation exclusive rights to offer blackjack and table games. The tracks, for their part, get 18-hour-a-day gaming in their racinos on weekdays, 24-hour round-the-clock play on weekends, a reduction in slots taxes from 50% to 35% and no-limit poker.

They have to hold the champagne, however, until the Seminole Nation tribal council, which had to agree to pay the state $150 million a year for the next 15 years to get the compromise, signs off on it. The legislature then has to vote approval again, either in a special session or during next year’s regular session.

We hope the bubbly doesn’t go flat while they’re waiting.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Stan Bergstein