It may not seem like it to most Americans, but betting on sports in the country is definitely an illegal pastime. The reason that it may not be obvious to many is that, according to the American Gaming Association, around $154 billion is wagered on sports bets every year, the vast majority of it being placed on football – more than triple the amount spent on the next most popular sport, basketball.
This huge interest in betting on sports is in line with the global phenomenon that even in 2013 was estimated as being worth $1 trillion worldwide and is almost certainly worth considerably more today.
It’s also surprising that a country like the USA where sport is so finely woven into the fabric of society is still opposed to letting fans make following their respective teams a little more interesting by having some money riding on the outcome of a game or any of the many other aspects of the play that it’s possible to bet on.
However, there is a chance that a Supreme Court ruling due in June 2018 could turn the official ban into history. But before we go into more detail about this, a little about why sports betting has been illegal for so long.
The reasons for the ban
Essentially, the greatest pressure for maintaining the ban has come from the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB who have long believed that officially sanctioning betting on their respective sports will act to compromise the integrity of their sport, for example, by encouraging match fixing. They may have a point, particularly if one takes cricket as an example where underhand practices have affected it even at the highest levels. The specific legislation that they cite to support the ban is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) that was passed in 1992 and banned gambling on sports in all states except Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana.
Of course, back then the internet was still in its infancy but now the world is that much more connected, and policing the law is an all-but impossible task, as the illegal gambling figures show.
New Jersey’s challenge
The challenge to the law has come from New Jersey, supported by about a dozen other states, and hinges on whether the congress ruling made 25 years ago also means that individual state jurisdictions are obliged to support it too. The signs are that the Justices sitting in judgment over the case are split in their opinions with some in favor of New Jersey’s position, some against and others broadly for the change in the law but reluctant to set a precedent in which federal law can be overturned as being unconstitutional.
Obviously, for many fans the overturning of the ban would be very good news as it would make an activity that they already enjoy free from the risk of prosecution if caught – although current penalties are low or non-existent. It could also be argued that it would generate even more interest in the sports themselves, with the obvious benefits of increased income through ticket sales, merchandise and other streams of revenue.
The UK example
Supporters also cite the example of the UK where the general loosening of the laws around gambling came into force under the government led by Tony Blair in the early 2000s. Despite criticism at the time there’s no doubt that these, along with the growing popularity of online gaming, heralded a new era for the gambling in the UK. Not only did sports gambling become a far more normalized activity woven into the fabric of virtually everything from soccer to tennis, it also saw the rise of online poker and a huge amount of live casino games. There has also been an increase in the number of people playing online bingo, bingo is fairly limited to the UK, it has always had a proud tradition with the game; bingo has recently seen a resurgence in the game due to the increasing amounts of young people getting involved. This is down to the quicker gameplay that is found online, it seems to suit a younger generation, the game as the brits know it, has been transformed. There is no doubt that the online gambling industry has helped to generate huge amounts of tax revenue for the UK government.
It’s this potential source of tax revenue that also makes legalizing sports gambling in the USA attractive for many states who currently have no opportunities for raising money from casinos, racetracks or other permitted forms of wagering.
The time could be right
It’s also thought that conditions are favorable for change under the Trump administration as back in the 1990s when he was involved in the casino industry himself he declared that he was in favor of sports betting. Similarly, when it comes to online gambling in general he’s thought to believe that it’s inevitable that it’s going to take place and therefore inevitable that it will eventually face widespread legalization.
So, it’s going to be a question of waiting until next June to see whether the Supreme Court decides to maintain the status quo as demanded by the governing bodies of all of the major sport or agree to overturn the PASPA.
The jury may be out on this particular issue, but the fact that other legislation such as the legalization of marijuana has take place in many states, suggest that we may now be in a far more liberal era in which even the most unexpected can happen.