In the roughly six months since the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on sports gambling, a handful of states have sprung to action to legalize the practice, from New Jersey to Mississippi.
In North Carolina, home to three major-league sports teams, the issue hasn’t gotten much attention lately. But experts say that in the coming months that could change, as they expect legalized sports betting to become a bigger part of the conversation locally.
When the Supreme Court struck down the ban on sports betting, it effectively gave states the green light to legalize the practice, and it opened the door to a potentially major revenue windfall for sports leagues.
That decision also drew interest from David Tepper, a billionaire hedge fund manager who was approved unanimously approved as the next owner of the Carolina Panthers by NFL owners just over a week later in Atlanta.
Since becoming owner, Tepper has brought up sports betting several times. In his first press conference as team owner in July, he suggested that given trends in other states, legalization locally may be coming, and that pro teams could benefit from it.
“You think about the fans and you want to keep the fans in the building. Eventually it’s going to hit North and South Carolina. It has to, from a revenue standpoint. You have issues with paying teachers and other things down here, and tax revenue, so it’s inevitable,” Tepper said at the time.
New Jersey, where Tepper spent much of his adulthood, became in June the first state to legalize the practice. Delaware also legalized it in June, followed by West Virginia and Mississippi in August, according to LegalSportsReport.com, which tracks the legalization of sports betting in the U.S.
The practice is legal in other pockets throughout the U.S., including Las Vegas, where the NFL’s Raiders are relocating from Oakland.
‘Let’s make it transparent’
By legalizing sports betting, states could tap into a new revenue source to support areas such as infrastructure, law enforcement and teacher pay, like Tepper mentioned, according to Bill Squadron, a professor of sport management at Elon University.
But legalized sports betting could also help increase engagement in sports, as fans could be more likely to tune into or attend a game if they have money riding on it.
“It’s going to be a hugely impactful new revenue source throughout the sports industry,” Squadron said.
That’s why the Miami Dolphins have been not-so-quietly pushing for the legalization of sports gambling in Florida. According to a recent Bloomberg story, a business entity affiliated with the Dolphins joined several operators of horse and greyhound tracks, as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in spending money to block a ballot initiative that would give voters power to reject any expansion of casino gambling.
Ahead of Election Day, the Dolphins tweeted out an image encouraging voters to reject Amendment 3, which, the team said “would effectively block any chance for legal sports betting in Florida.” The amendment passed, and the Dolphins deleted the tweet.
The NFL’s annual revenue could rise by $2.3 billion a year as sports gambling becomes legalized nationwide, according to a recent report from Nielsen and the American Gaming Association. The study found that the bulk of that will come in the form of media rights, with the rest benefiting sponsorship, merchandise and ticket sales.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been vocal in his support for legalizing sports betting.
“We know there’s an enormous amount of illegal sports betting in the United States. Estimates go up to $400 billion a year for all sports. So my feeling is let’s make it transparent. Let’s regulate it,” Silver said in a radio interview with ESPN in April.
In late July, Silver announced that the league had agreed to make MGM Resorts “the official gaming partner” of the NBA and WNBA. The deal made the NBA the first major U.S. sports league to strike a sponsorship deal with a sportsbook operator.
About a month later, a committee of NFL owners approved a measure that gives teams the right to sell sponsorships to casinos that operate sportsbooks, according to SportsBusiness Daily.
The Dallas Cowboys became the first NFL team to partner with a casino a few days later when owner Jerry Jones announced a sponsorship deal with WinStar World Casino and Resort. The resort’s about an hour away from the Cowboys’ practice facility in Oklahoma, which recently introduced a bill to legalize sports betting.
Sports betting is already common among fans, albeit not always legally, as Silver noted. According to a recent study from East Carolina University, more Americans think sports betting should be legal than not.
Of course, there’s plenty of opposition to the practice, including concerns over gambling addiction. The NCAA has said it’s opposed to sports gambling, although in July, the association, citing “the integrity of competitions and the well-being of student-athletes,” said it is examining its long-term impact on college sports.
In the Carolinas
Legislative leaders in the Carolinas say they could address sports betting legalization soon.
N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, said it’s too early to say how the state will handle it.
“This is an issue that’s on people’s minds, but I don’t know where our caucus stands, particularly the new members. I expect that the proper role for the state will be discussed as we enter the new session next year,” Berger said in an email.
But already, there is momentum among some lawmakers.
The next step, legalized sports betting, Hardister said, is “something North Carolina needs to address.
“We need to (legalize) sports betting and create a framework to regulate it. I’ve talked to colleagues, and there is a willingness to address the issue. We need to study it and see what other states are doing,” Hardister said.
He added that it might not be an issue that falls along party lines, so long as it’s touted as a voluntary tax with revenues earmarked for areas of need like education and addiction treatment.
Rep. Carla Cunningham, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County who co-sponsored the fantasy sports bill last year, said she hasn’t focused much on sports betting, but she’d be open to discussing the issue more in the future if it’s positioned as something that benefits areas of need.
In South Carolina, there’s already enthusiasm for it: A bill introduced last year would have amended the state’s constitution to allow for placing bets on professional sports. The legislative session ended last spring before the bill could be voted on.
S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a Democrat from Richland who introduced the bill, said he “absolutely will introduce” legislation again to legalize sports betting in the state.
Sports fans in South Carolina and beyond already place bets on sports, Rutherford said. It’s the job of lawmakers to create a legal framework for the practice, which could provide a new source of revenue for the state.
“Why not allow them to do legally what they’ve been doing illegally but tax them on it?” Rutherford said.
As the Panthers consider moving some operations across state lines, one factor that could influence that decision is whether North or South Carolina seeks to legalize sports gambling.
The Observer has previously reported that team owner Tepper could consider building a new practice complex that includes mixed-use development. Representatives for Tepper declined to comment for this story.
“I view this as the Carolina Panthers in both states so we have to think about where we’re putting things,” Tepper said in his introductory press conference at Bank of America Stadium in July.
The Panthers, Hardister notes, are a major franchise close to the South Carolina border, so the team could play a significant role as lawmakers in both states address the gambling issue.
“I suspect we’ll get to work on (sports gambling legislation) when the legislature is back in session,” Hardister said.