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Despite hurdles, fans find ways to bet on Super Bowl

Despite hurdles, fans find ways to bet on Super Bowl
Super Bowl proposition bets are displayed on a board at the Westgate Superbook race and sports book Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) ORG XMIT: NVJL104 (John Locher / Associated Press)

His gut-level disdain for the New England Patriots would be reason enough for Bill West to get stoked about Super Bowl XLIX. But like millions of Americans, the Ravens fan plans to raise the stakes by putting a little money on the outcome.

West's head and heart — and soon his wallet — will be aligned with the Seattle Seahawks. The builder-developer, who hosts a Ravens-themed show on Fox 1370 AM, said he will bet "a small sum" online to make Sunday's big game feel even weightier — despite a federal ban on Internet sports wagering.

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"Here in Baltimore, we don't care for Tom Brady too much," West said of the Patriots quarterback.

For West, like many Americans, the combination of two American pastimes — watching NFL games and gambling — is too potent to resist. Although such bets are illegal in most of the country, the American Gaming Association estimates fans will spend more than $3.8 billion this year on a dizzying array of Super Bowl wagers. And that doesn't include the ubiquitous office pools.

"Sports has become so much more popular in the last 20 years," said Richard Borghesi, an associate professor of finance at the University of South Florida. "As that popularity grows, the interest in betting on sports is going to continue to grow."

On Friday, Sen. John McCain endorsed congressional hearings on the expansion of legalized sports betting on the ABC/ESPN podcast "Capital Games."

The Arizona Republican said he backed sports betting in states or on Indian reservations where other forms of gambling are already legal. But he said he was concerned that Internet gambling remains ripe for corruption.

Congress voted in 1992 to ban sports betting in the United States — with exceptions for Nevada, where it already existed, and few other states.Delaware — where some Ravens fans go to bet on NFL games — was given a partial exemption because it had experimented with such wagering in the 1970s. The waiver allows state casinos and designated stores to offer NFL "parlays," which means gamblers must wager on the outcomes of at least three games per betting card and win them all.

On NFL weekends, some Delaware bars and convenience stores turn into tiny sports books, with customers filling out play sheets with pencils and discussing the games. Delaware ended its season-long NFL betting before Super Bowl week began.

In Nevada,a record $119.4 million was bet on last year's Super Bowl, according to the state's gaming control board.

Most online gambling transactions are barred under the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, but that's done little to slow its growth.

Online wagers are available on such things as the outcome of the game, its Nielsen ratings, the opening coin toss, the color of the sports drink poured on the winning coach, and the length of time it will take Idina Menzel to sing the national anthem.

"It's amazing how much we take in on that," said Kevin Bradley, sports book manager for Bovada.lv, a gambling website licensed in Canada, of the national anthem bet. "The over-under is 2 minutes, 1 second. It's taking exactly 50-50 money. We didn't have to adjust the line at all."

Operators prefer it when money is evenly distributed on both sides because they are guaranteed not to endure a big loss. They make much of their money by taking a small cut called the "vigorish."

Bovada won't release figures but says last year was its heaviest-bet Super Bowl ever. "We're expecting it to be right around that this year, if not more," Bradley said.

Online bettors such as West, the head of a local Ravens Roost fan club, don't interest federal law enforcement authorities.

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"Federal law on this subject applies to gambling businesses and payment processors, not to individuals who place wagers on these sites," Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said.

Nor do federal or state governments generally go after "Super Bowl Squares" office pools, though some states have made arrests when squares are selling for excessive amounts such as $1,000 or more.

The pools offer even disinterested fans a reason to focus on the game. In a popular version of the pools, participants put up a sum to buy one of 100 squares on a grid numbered 0 to 9. They hope the score of the game after each quarter corresponds with their position on the grid so they win a fourth of the total pool — of $250 in a pool selling $10 squares.

"Everybody plays pools," said Tom Maly, president of a Ravens Roost in Ocean City.

Federal prosecutors did go after Bodog.com founder Calvin Ayre and three others in 2012, indicting them in Baltimore for allegedly conducting an illegal sports gambling site and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Bodog is a predecessor of Bovada.lv. Prosecutors indicated in October that they continue to pursue the extradition of Ayre, a Canadian citizen who has appeared on the cover of Forbes magazine and has been listed among People magazine's "hottest bachelors."

Ayre has denounced the case as an "abuse of the U.S. criminal justice system for the commercial gain of large U.S. corporations."

The American Gaming Association, which represents the nation's casino industry, is pushing the federal government to more aggressively monitor illegal gambling operations.

"As millions of fans plan to watch the Super Bowl this Sunday, many will place wagers on everything from the result of the coin toss to which team prevails," the trade group said in a letter last week to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter warned of the risk of money laundering due to the "underground market."

National opinion may be warming to the idea of legalizing sports betting. In a New York Times opinion piece, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last year that Congress should legalize and regulate betting on professional sports, citing estimates that "nearly $400 billion is illegally wagered on sports each year."

Congressional opponents say lifting the prohibition would create new temptations for compulsive gamblers and that online operators would be challenged to verify gamblers' ages.

Proponents argue there is more risk to gamblers in an illegal environment than a regulated one.

"I think Adam Silver has done a huge service," said former New York Rep. Tom Downey, whose lobbying firm has represented clients seeking legalization. He said arguments against sports betting "ignore the reality that it happens every day in Las Vegas and Great Britain" and that it's time "to get it out of the netherworld it inhabits today" in most of the United States.

West said he wishes betting on the NFL was as simple as stopping at one of the state's casinos. Casino sports books in Las Vegas are popular hangouts, where fans watch games on banks of giant screens.

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"I know quite a few guys that bet on the NFL. Most of the guys would love to see it in Maryland," he said.

Maryland's biggest casinos, Maryland Live and Horseshoe Baltimore, are both offering Super Bowl-themed events, minus betting on the game.

The casinos aren't permitted to use NFL trademarks in the promotions. Maryland Live was promoting weekend drawings for 49 80-inch TVs — this is the 49th Super Bowl — tied to the "Big Game."

Even without offering sports betting, Super Bowl weekend is "huge for us," said Mario Maesano, Maryland Live's senior vice president of marketing. "I would say it's probably in the top 10" of the casino's biggest days of the year, he said.

Maryland does not seem inclined to legalize sports betting anytime soon. Maryland's first casino opened in 2010; it now has five, with a sixth, MGM National Harbor, scheduled to open in Prince George's County in 2016.

"We're not going to deal with anything in gambling at least until MGM is open," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said in November when asked about sports betting. "We just legalized table games. There are only so many disposable dollars."

After Gov. Larry Hogan was elected in November, aides said it would be premature to comment on sports betting. The governor's spokesperson did not respond to inquiries on the subject this week. An effort by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to legalize sports betting in that state is on hold pending a court challenge by the NFL and other sports leagues that contend the plan would violate federal law.

The Patriots are a narrow favorite in the Super Bowl — by a 1- or 2-point margin. Among the available online bets is whether Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch will grab his crotch — as he has been known to do — after scoring a touchdown.

"It's 4-1 that he does it," Bovada's Bradley said. "We hope that he doesn't."

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