The fight for widespread legalization of sports betting in this country received a huge boost this past June when the Supreme Court, to the surprise of many and over the objection of the Solicitor General, agreed to hear New Jersey’s lawsuit. Murphy v. NCAA, formerly Christie v. NCAA, is set to be decided in the near future. The judges’ decision to hear the case, and the sentiments of many of the judges during the case’s oral arguments, have led many to suggest that New Jersey is likely to prevail.
New Jersey’s effort to legalize sports gambling largely began in 2011 with a statewide popular vote. That vote, and the legislative bill that followed in 2012, started the ball rolling on a lengthy and often discouraging legal battle spearheaded by then governor Chris Christie and supported by state leaders on both sides of the aisle. A positive outcome in this case would not only benefit New Jersey, however; this case could remake the entire national betting landscape.
This lawsuit centers around the constitutionality of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), which limited legal sports betting. Because of PASPA, Nevada is currently the only state that allows full sports betting. While there is no guarantee that a New Jersey victory would allow for legalized sports betting nationwide, states across the country appear to believe that this will be the outcome. Many states have already passed or are prepared to pass bills to legalize sports betting once New Jersey is victorious in the case. The federal government may also look to take part in the gambling legalization process, and legislation on the issue has already been proposed in Congress. It appears that an avalanche of sports gambling could soon be underway in states across the nation.
One of the remarkable aspects of the evolution of this fight is the stance of the major professional sports leagues. When New Jersey’s efforts began, commissioners of the prominent professional sports leagues stood strongly in opposition to legalizing sports gambling. Over time, however, the public stances of the leagues changed dramatically. The new commissioner of the NBA, unlike his predecessor, came out in favor of legalizing sports betting, and leaders of the other professional leagues have softened their stances as well. The NHL, in a particularly telling move, became the first major professional sports franchise to place a team in Las Vegas, the main city in which sports gambling currently occurs. The NFL’s Raiders will be moving to Las Vegas as well. While opposition from the professional sports leagues appears to be fading away, the NCAA remains strongly opposed to sports betting given that its athletes are unpaid amateurs. Interestingly, however, despite the NCAA’s continued unwillingness to hold championships in Las Vegas, several major collegiate athletic conferences have placed tournaments in the city and many believe that the NCAA will ultimately follow. The change in sentiment on sports betting from major sports organizations over the last few years has been stark, and there is little doubt that the tide has drastically changed.
The inequality of allowing sports betting in one state but not others is apparent even to some of those in Nevada. It certainly does seem odd that sports betting is allowed in one state and not in others. Furthermore, given that there is a ton of sports betting that occurs illegally, the legalization of sports betting could provide a significant source of government revenue. March Madness pools, for example, are a major source of unregulated sports gambling income. Indeed, legal sports betting appears that it could be a win-win proposal for both the public and the government. The professional sports leagues will likely be looking to profit from legalized betting as well.
Despite the widespread shift in public positions on sports betting, there remains opposition to legalization and it is unlikely that every state will follow New Jersey’s lead. Utah, for example, has been singled out as a state with a particularly strong opposition to legal betting of any kind. Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey Senator and professional basketball player who pushed for PASPA (it is also known as the “Bradley Act”), also remains opposed to legalized sports betting. Furthermore, there remain many unanswered questions about how sports betting will evolve in the event of legalization. We can only imagine what that future will look like. Nonetheless, the momentum on this issue has clearly shifted and the pending Supreme Court decision has the potential to alter the sports betting landscape in significant ways.
Michael Stern is a J.D. candidate, 2019, at NYU School of Law.