While state leaders continue their decades-old hemming and hawing over a lottery, folks could be legally betting on sports and horse racing in Mississippi casinos by this coming football season.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule as early as next week (or as late as June 25) on whether states can allow sports betting.
If it rules they can allow it, Mississippi is, to borrow the words of former state House Gaming Chairman Bobby Moak, “ready to run the ponies.”
In a move that still astounds me, state lawmakers in 2017 sneakily legalized sports betting without most folks realizing it.
And in a move that further astounds me, they didn’t come back this year and undo it.
This undermines any arguments that legalizing it was just an oops or a scrivener’s error. Bills to undo or postpone legalized sports betting died in committee this session without a peep from the leadership.
If you oppose the expansion of legal gambling to include sports, you’ve done been had by the Mississippi Legislature. That horse has left the barn — or gate, as it was.
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Lawmakers last year passed a bill to regulate and tax fantasy sports. In doing so, someone also snipped out a bit of state gambling code that said people could legally wager only on games held on the casino floor.
The federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 bans sports gambling in all states except Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana. New Jersey has battled this in court for years, with other states joining in, arguing it’s unconstitutional under the 10th Amendment’s provisions for states rights. The U.S. Supreme Court last year agreed to hear the case, and a ruling will come by June 25.
Mississippi Gaming Commission Director Allen Godfrey has said the new Mississippi law allows sports betting, subject to regulation by the commission.
“It will be just another type of game offered in a legal casino operation,” Godfrey said.
Godfrey said that even if the ruling were to come as late as the June 25 deadline, and it removes the federal ban, the commission would have regulations and approvals finalized and sports betting could begin in casinos “within 45 to 60 days, before football season.”
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New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and West Virginia have also passed state measures allowing legal sports betting, should the federal ban be lifted by the high court.
There could be financial benefit to Mississippi’s gambling industry being early out of the gate, pun intended. It could be a shot in the arm for the state’s casinos, many of which are financially ailing.
“Florida’s not talking about it. Tennessee’s not talking about it. Nor is Arkansas or Georgia,” Godfrey said. “Louisiana has about 35 days left in its legislative session, and that topic is not getting much traction. No one within our drive-in market is having that conversation.”
No one is really sure how large the current (mostly illegal) U.S. sports betting market is, although many cite a $150 billion a year figure. In Nevada, legal sports gambling accounts for 2 percent to 4 percent of annual gross gambling revenue of $10 million to $11 million a year. Mississippi’s gross gambling revenue is about $2 billion.
But Godfrey said sports betting would mean more than just the actual gambling revenue for Mississippi casinos and their towns.
“It’s a very nice amenity for them to have that would generate more foot traffic during times of the week when foot traffic is not very high,” Godfrey said. “It would likely increase revenue at hotels, restaurants, etc.”
And it was passed in Mississippi without debate.