Fans will wager nearly $5 billion on Sunday's Super Bowl. But for Maryland's booming casinos, a federal ban on most sports betting means the growing market remains tantalizingly out of reach.
While gambling on football and other sports is legal in Nevada and three other states, the 1992 ban prevents casinos here and in the rest of the country from offering wagers on games.
The industry says the prohibition has done little to stem the public's appetite — it just sends fans to offshore operators, or bookies. The American Gaming Association, a casino industry group, estimates that 97 percent of the $4.7 billion expected to be bet on the NFL championship between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons "will be placed illegally."
For casinos that are left out, the Super Bowl is an unpleasant annual reminder that they're missing an opportunity to connect with potential customers who passionately follow America's most popular professional sports league.
Now operators in Maryland and across the nation, emboldened by the election of one of their own as president, are advocating for a share of the market. The gaming association is urging lawmakers to lift the ban and bring the multibillion-dollar business back onshore.
"You have no choice but to take a look at a law that has failed so miserably on its 25th anniversary," said Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the association.
"We're going to be outspoken with many allies in really forcing Congress to take a harder look at this. I think things are trending quite well when it comes to regulating sports betting."
The effort has some support in Washington. President Donald J. Trump, a former casino mogul, was asked by radio show host Colin Cowherd in 2015 about legalizing sports gambling and daily fantasy sports.
"I'm OK with it because it's happening anyway," Trump said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
Supporters say legalization would bring a mostly illegal business under regulation.
"I think it should be a state issue and not a federal issue," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat whose district includes the Maryland Live casino in Anne Arundel County. "I think each state should have the opportunity to look at this from a legal point of view and have a debate about it."
Legalization would allow casinos to offer Las Vegas-style sports book rooms, where clerks accept bets and odds are displayed on oversized, blinking boards.
The rooms, with banks of giant television monitors, are popular and sometimes rowdy gathering spots during the Super Bowl, March Madness and other big events.
"I think people would be interested," said Jim McCain, vice president of the Council of Baltimore Ravens Roosts, a fan group. "You can bet on anything now, especially when it comes to the Super Bowl."
Fans have been placing wagers on a wide range of outcomes Sunday — from the coin toss, the first player to score a touchdown and the team to win the game to the hair color of halftime performer Lady Gaga or the color of the sports drink that will douse the winning coach.
The owners of the state's three largest casinos — Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, Maryland Live and MGM National Harbor in Prince George's County — say states should have the authority to sanction sports bets.
"Over $100 billion annually is wagered illegally on sports in the U.S.," Caesars Entertainment, owner of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, said in a statement. The casino accepts bets on horse racing overseen by the state, but is barred from taking wagers on football, basketball or other sports.
"We support legal, regulated sports betting, which today is permitted in different forms in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana. We are interested in working with the government and private sector to achieve this worthwhile goal."
President George H.W. Bush signed the congressional ban into law in 1992. Nevada and the other states received exemptions because they already offered some form of sports betting.
Nevada remains the nation's sports betting hub. The beneficiaries have included MGM Resorts, owner of the Bellagio, Aria, and other Las Vegas casinos, which all offer sports betting. The recently opened MGM National Harbor is subject to the ban.
"Our company's longstanding position is that sports betting should be legalized outside of Nevada in those states that choose to offer it, with strong oversight that protects consumers and the integrity of the sports themselves," MGM Resorts said in a statement.
The National Council on Problem Gambling, an advocacy group, isn't taking a position on whether Congress should revisit sports gambling. But executive director Keith Whyte expressed concern.
"In our experience over the last 40-plus years, it's been rare that a state government puts significant money to prevent and treat addiction in places where they expand gambling," Whyte said. "Why should we trust that they're going to do it for sports betting?"
Federal lawmakers say internet gambling remains vulnerable to corruption. Most online gambling transactions are illegal under the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, but Americans may still log on to offshore sites, and the government generally leaves them alone.
The American Gaming Association says it's not focused on online sports betting.
"My position is we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Freeman said.
Bovada.lv is an online casino with some operations in the Caribbean island of Antigua. Pat Morrow, its head oddsmaker, declined to say how much was received on last year's Super Bowl.
"Year-to-year growth is always increasing," he said. "That appears to be the trending case this year, too."
David Cordish, whose Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. owns Maryland Live, said state regulation would ensure "that the bettors are getting a fair shake."
"It will be a new source of taxing revenue for the state," he said. "And while it will not be a big revenue producer for the casinos, it will be additive to the mix of people visiting and utilizing the casinos."
With the opening of the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor casino and resort to capacity crowds, Maryland casinos generated a record $133.5 million in revenue during December.
No estimates were available on how much sports betting could add to the bottom line.
"It isn't a huge moneymaker compared to a lot of other casino-style games," Freeman said. "But it is a great draw."
The Washington offices of Freeman's association contain a sports ticker with the latest betting lines. He said the evolution of sports betting into real-time wagers could increase its appeal.
"There's going to be a time where I'll be watching a [Washington] Nats game and you'll be watching an Orioles game," he said. "There's going to be a runner on first. You're going to be betting on whether the next pitch is a ball or strike and you're going to put a side bet on a double play."
Sports gambling advocates are monitoring a case that the state of New Jersey wants to take to the Supreme Court.
New Jersey, which wants to legalize sports gambling, has argued that the federal ban usurps states' rights The justices have asked the Trump administration to file a brief.
The court has not agreed to hear the case, but the request has kept the state's hopes alive.
Freeman says his association has not yet proposed legislation to repeal the ban. Analysts say the odds may be tilting in the casinos' favor as they open more establishments around the country and gambling becomes more mainstream.
"The No. 1 agenda item for this new administration is 'Make America great' and create jobs," said Daniel Wallach, a sports and gaming attorney with the Florida firm Becker & Poliakoff. "Sports betting can be sold as part of a job-creation package."
The NFL, which has long said that legalized gambling could damage the sport, remains opposed, spokesman Brian McCarthy said.
But NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in 2014 that Congress should legalize and regulate betting on professional sports.
University of Maryland professor Stephen McDaniel teaches a course about gambling.
"I think the people dragging their feet have been the sports leagues," he said. "The NBA is our most international sport. It has an international following, and I think they know this is going on in the rest of the world."