The Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for an anticipated boom in legalized sports betting across the nation — an outcome sought by Maryland’s largest casinos, seeking a share of a multi-billion dollar market.
The justices, in a 6-3 vote, struck down a federal law that has prevented New Jersey, which brought the case, and most other states from offering wagering on sports at their race tracks and casinos.
The court’s decision allows states to decide whether to permit sports betting, a move in Maryland that would require a state constitutional amendment with ratification by voters in a general election.
The General Assembly considered a bill that would have put the matter on the ballot this year, in anticipation of the court’s move, but it did not pass. That could put Maryland behind some neighboring states already poised to legalize sports betting.
Gov. Larry Hogan “has previously expressed support for the rights of states to make this determination, and we anticipate this issue will be debated in the next legislative session” beginning next January, said a spokeswoman, Shareese DeLeaver Churchill.
Legalization could allow Maryland’s casinos to offer the equivalent of Las Vegas-style sports book rooms, where clerks accept bets and odds are displayed on oversized, blinking boards. The state’s largest casinos — including Live Casino & Hotel at Arundel Mills, Horseshoe Casino Baltimore and MGM National Harbor in Prince George's County — are eager to embrace sports betting, having said that states should have the authority to sanction it.
The owners of MGM National Harbor, a $1.4 billion casino and resort that opened in December 2016, said in a statement that they are “working to ensure that Maryland legalizes sports betting as quickly as possible so that residents can take advantage of a legal, well-regulated sports wagering market. If Maryland doesn’t quickly address this issue, surrounding states will, and Maryland will lose an important competitive edge."
Maryland now permits slot machines and table games at its six casinos, as well as betting on horse races at tracks and limited off-track betting sites. State law does not permit betting on other sports, although it does regulate fantasy sports contests in which participants wager on the individual performances of professional players.
The legislation to put a sports betting question on this November’s ballot failed after the House of Delegates and the Senate could not agree on whether to explicitly allow sports betting at racetracks. The House wanted the tracks in the bill, while the Senate wanted to defer a decision on particular locations and simply ask voters whether they would approve sports betting.
That means the earliest Maryland voters might consider such an amendment is November 2020, presuming it passes the General Assembly and barring the unlikely event of a special session in an election year.
That could leave the state behind others like New Jersey and Pennsylvania that already approved sports betting, contingent on the court’s decision.
“Maryland may find itself way behind,” said a headline on Legal Sports Report, an online site devoted to sports betting. “By the time the statehouse is in action again, the state may find a very different landscape for legal wagering.”
Sen. Nancy J. King, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, said the failure to get the measure onto the ballot was not a serious blow to the state’s gambling industry.
“It just wasn’t that much revenue we would get from it,” said King, who added that she knew of no sentiment for a special session.
According to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, sports betting makes up only 2 percent of total gambling revenue in Nevada. Estimates of Maryland's potential revenue from sports gambling vary wildly.
Legislative analysts pointed to forecasts from Global Market Advisors ranging from $13.7 million to $182.1 million annually if sports betting were legal. Last year Maryland earned $1.7 billion in revenue from casinos, $531 million of which was directed to the Education Trust Fund.
Still, King said it’s likely she will reintroduce her legislation in the 2019 session.
“I think we’ll do more working with the House to come up with some bill both sides can agree on early in the game,” she said. “It would be nice to get it worked out early and get it on the ballot to let the voters decide.”
The state’s casinos have said sports betting would entice new customers to their establishments and provide a new source of state tax revenue.
“The court’s decision is both a victory for state’s rights and for the millions of Americans who want to legally bet on sports in a safe, regulated environment...,” said Joe Weinberg, managing partner of The Cordish Companies, owners of Live Casino & Hotel in Hanover, in a statement. “Sports betting should be made available exclusively through the regulated casinos in Maryland, where it is best positioned to protect consumers and maximize tax revenues to the state.”
Opponents say legalization could lead to increased problem gambling or sports-league scandals in which players try to manipulate betting outcomes.
President George H.W. Bush signed the congressional ban into law in 1992. Nevada and a few other states received exemptions because they already offered some form of sports betting. New Jersey challenged the law, arguing that it usurps states' rights and prevents elected state officials from responding to their constituents’ gambling preferences.
The NCAA and major pro leagues — including the National Football League, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball — went to federal court and won several rulings declaring that New Jersey would violate the law if it permitted sports gaming at its tracks and casinos.
But the Supreme Court agreed with New Jersey that the Constitution's 10th Amendment shields states from being required to enforce a federal law.
"The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own.”
Major League Baseball reacted cautiously to the court’s decision.
“As each state considers whether to allow sports betting, we will continue to seek the proper protections for our sport, in partnership with other professional sports,” the league office said in a statement. “Our most important priority is protecting the integrity of our games.”
The NFL said in a statement that it would “call on Congress again, this time to enact a core regulatory framework for legalized sports betting. We also will work closely with our clubs to ensure that any state efforts that move forward in the meantime protect our fans and the integrity of our game."
The American Gaming Association, a casino industry group, welcomed the decision. It has said that sports betting is a huge, unregulated industry in which Americans wager mostly with offshore sites.
“Today’s ruling makes it possible for states and sovereign tribal nations to give Americans what they want: an open, transparent, and responsible market for sports betting,” the association said Monday.
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.