Sports betting? No reason to rush

In less than two months, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a New Jersey case that could repeal federal limits on sports betting. Not surprisingly, Maryland casino owners are interested in a piece of that action. They are already urging the Maryland General Assembly to place on the 2018 ballot a constitutional amendment to legalize wagers on professional and college sports events. Under the circumstances, there is really only one appropriate course of action when the legislature reconvenes in January.

Just say no.

Considering all the difficult tasks that lie ahead for lawmakers, from balancing the state budget to tinkering with the school funding formula and helping Baltimore deal with an uptick in violent crime, there’s no reason why legalized sports betting deserves serious consideration in 2018. For one thing, it’s far from certain the Supreme Court will buy New Jersey’s argument that the 1992 law banning sports betting beyond a handful of states like Nevada where it was already taking place is a violation of the 10th Amendment (as a “commandeering” of a state power).

But let’s imagine that the nation’s highest court does rule in New Jersey’s favor sometime later in the term. What’s the rush? Proponents say Maryland must act quickly in order to get legalized sports betting on the 2018 ballot where it must be ratified by voters. But that’s an artificial deadline. Lawmakers could just as easily aim for the 2020 ballot and, in the process, have two years to ponder the implications of sports wagering and how it might be properly regulated.

The essential question lawmakers should ask is, what’s the benefit of rushing to allow sports betting? The answer appears to be: not much. As any dedicated sports fans can tell you (including those who bet on fantasy web sites like DraftKings or just do it for fun with friends), it’s a complex business. Setting odds, favorites, betting lines and other constantly evolving parameters is a sophisticated matter that the gaming industry well understands. Las Vegas is the center of the U.S. sports gaming world and has been for decades. Maryland won’t be running the show no matter what lawmakers do. There’s no real benefit to being first in line, only risks that the state will fail its regulatory responsibilities or strike a bad deal for taxpayers. This isn’t like bringing in Amazon’s headquarters or a new industry with exciting growth potential like off-shore wind or cyber-security. This is one case where what happens in Vegas really will stay in Vegas.

If sports wagering is legalized in Pennsylvania or West Virginia first, will there be a stampede of gamblers leaving Maryland casinos for those greener pastures? Even gaming companies aren’t making that claim — and for good reason. Sports wagering may be a big deal to sports leagues and sports fans, but it’s relatively small potatoes in the casino business. Gaming companies aren’t arguing that sports wagering will bring a bonanza of profits, they’re arguing that sports wagering will bring new, non-traditional betters to their casinos and they’ll wager on other games — blackjack, slots, poker, etc. — while they are there.

Finally, there’s also the matter of whether Maryland ought to be expanding gambling. Let’s say that sports wagering does, indeed, bring more patrons to casinos and more revenue to the state. Lawmakers will also have to ponder this: What’s the human cost? Will the people lining up to bet that the Ravens are headed to the Super Bowl or that the University of Maryland will beat the over-under against Northwestern be wagering dollars they can afford to lose? For the most part, the gambling genie is out of the bottle in Maryland and has been since the first casino opened in Perryville in 2010. But with each escalation from slots to table games to poker and from the expansion from five casinos to six with the opening of MGM National Harbor 10 months ago, the impact on families, including those that live paycheck to paycheck, has likely increased as well.

Should Maryland get in line for sports wagering? That’s a conversation eventually worth having — with a great deal of public input — should the Supreme Court side with New Jersey and overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. But it’s not something to be hurriedly pushed on the voters. There’s simply no significant advantage to be an early adopter and too many potential shortcomings to ignore.

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