After three years of widespread legal sports betting, New Jersey-based gamblers on Thursday grew ever closer to being able to bet on Rutgers football games, Seton Hall basketball contests, and other competitions involving state schools.
The state Senate — in a three-hour session punctuated by occasional angry political comments from lawmakers and by loud protests outside the Senate chambers that could be heard on a Zoom feed — passed a “continuing resolution” to approve a statewide sports betting referendum this fall.
The vote was 36-1, with conservative Republican Michael Doherty of Warren County the lone “no” vote. Resolution co-sponsor Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, told NJ Online Gambling after the vote that his colleagues in the state Assembly have assured him that the full Assembly would put the measure up for a vote “before the end of June.”
That timing is important for several reasons. The technical review for ballot questions and the need to print ballots well in advance of the Nov. 2 elections means that lawmakers say the legislature needs to pass the resolutions by mid-year. Also, the legislature traditionally takes the months of July and August off completely, adding to the urgency.
What the resolution says
The resolution, which was first introduced last October, runs just six pages.
“Wagering shall not be permitted on a college sport or athletic event that takes place in New Jersey or on a sport or athletic event in which any New Jersey college team participates regardless of where the event takes place,” the law already reads, with the amendment adding, “except that it shall be lawful for the Legislature to authorize by law wagering at casinos or gambling houses in Atlantic City on the results of any college sport or athletic event that is a tournament, playoff, championship, or other postseason competition that takes place in New Jersey, including any such event in which a New Jersey college team participates, and that is sanctioned by a nonprofit collegiate athletic association led by its members.”
Another new clause clarifies that the state’s three racetracks — and its mobile sports betting partners — will have the same new options.
The “interpretive statement” proposed for the ballot that many voters will rely on is scheduled to read:
“Currently, the State Constitution prohibits wagering on college sport or athletic events taking place in New Jersey. It also prohibits wagering on an event in which a New Jersey college team participates. This amendment would allow the Legislature to pass laws permitting wagering on any college sport or athletic event.
“It would permit wagering even if a New Jersey college team participates in the competition. Such wagering would be permitted only through casinos and current or former horse racetracks.“
How soon can this betting begin?
The only late-2021 sport that might interest the almost two dozen mobile sportsbooks in the state would be Rutgers football, the state’s only top-level program in that sport.
The Scarlet Knights will play eight of their 12 regular-season games, however, before the vote is even taken.
Also, even if the issue lands on the Nov. 2 ballot and even if it passes, lawmakers would have to establish “enabling legislation” before the first college bets are taken.
The widespread support for legal gambling expansion measures dates back even before 2013, when New Jersey joined Delaware as the first states to permit online casino gaming.
But even with a willing legislature, the Nov. 6 game against Wisconsin and another at Indiana a week later would seem to be unlikely legal betting targets. That would just leave the Nov. 20 game at Penn State and the home finale vs. Maryland on Nov. 27.
How quickly the required legislation passes and goes to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk realistically may depend on how well the Scarlet Knights’ season has gone. But if the team wins at least half its games, Rutgers would wind up in a postseason bowl game — likely in late December or the first week of January.
A March toward Madness
When Sarlo looked into ways around the previous in-state college prohibition last year, he initially merely sought to pave the way for out-of-state visitors who come to the Prudential Center in Newark for men’s college basketball March Madness in 2025.
But Sarlo found that, a few years after New Jersey defeated the NCAA and four pro sports leagues at the U.S. Supreme Court to open the door for any state to feature “Las Vegas-style” legal sports betting, opposition from both the NCAA and the college athletic programs in the state had all but disappeared.
So Sarlo’s goal for the launch of in-state college betting has centered more on next spring’s so-called Madness, with the state having eight eligible men’s basketball programs.
The ban on in-state games, former state Sen. Ray Lesniak has said, came about because a decade ago he was anxious to get a sports betting law passed for the specific purpose of luring the sports organizations to sue. Lesniak was convinced he would prevail in court — and while it took six years, he was right.
The 2011 referendum allowing racetracks and Atlantic City casinos to feature sports betting — in spite of a 1992 federal law that expressly barred such activity outside of Nevada — was approved by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. With New Jersey having taken in more in sports bets than any other state in the past three years — including Nevada — at $15 billion in three full years, and without significant negative publicity about the gambling, this latest ballot question seems like close to a sure thing for passage.
More gambling bills passed
The state Senate unanimously approved another bill on Thursday that revamps the way that promotional gaming credits are taxed.
Under the bill, “the first $12 million of promotional gaming credits for Internet sports wagering issued by all casinos and racetracks that hold a sports wagering license would still be taxed, but any amount in excess would be deductible from the gross revenues for Internet sports wagering.”
Bill proponents hope that the state’s larger mobile sportsbook operators such as PointsBet or FanDuel will be incentivized to expand their efforts to market to potential new players. That’s because beyond the $12 million spending mark, no additional tax is levied.
And a new gambler who signs up, for example, for a promotion where they deposit $500 and the operator matches that amount into their account presumably, in the long run, becomes a revenue-producer for the operator — leading, in turn, to more tax revenue for the state.
Another bill that passed without a dissenting vote in the Senate on Thursday permits bingo games and raffles to be held remotely rather than only in-person. The bill was introduced last summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic and passed the Assembly in March, and will land on Murphy’s desk even as the pandemic continues to wane.
Doherty, who was opposed to the 2013 online casino gaming bill that became law, was the lone “no” vote Thursday on a bill that provides some temporary tax relief to Atlantic City casinos that were hit hard by pandemic-related closures and then only partial reopenings.
Harness racing backed by Senate, too
Finally, a horse racing bill was cleared out of a Senate committee on Thursday morning, hours before the full Senate votes.
That bill, backed by the state’s horsemen, would require continuation of live harness racing for standardbred racetracks that hold a sports wagering license — sort of a harness racing insurance policy.
The Meadowlands Racetrack and Freehold Raceway would be required to offer at least 151 racing dates annually to continue to take sports bets, “except that the annual number of scheduled standardbred race dates may be decreased to no fewer than 75 standardbred race dates upon written consent from the Standardbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association of New Jersey.”
“The Legislature recognizes the importance of the horse racing industry to this State, which includes generating millions of dollars in agribusiness and tax revenue, thousands of jobs, and support for thousands of acres of productive agricultural open space.
“This bill seeks to protect this industry and the benefits to the State of racing–related training and breeding farms by ensuring the continuation of live horse racing for racetracks that operate sports pools. The bill is limited to standardbred racetracks only, in recognition of the inherent incentive to continue live horse racing that exists when a horsemen’s association operates the racetrack, as is currently the case with thoroughbred racetracks.”
Fixed-odds bill still in talking stage
Two weeks ago, a pair of state Assembly committees advanced a bill that would allow for “fixed odds” wagering on horse race bets placed in the state.
The new method, unlike the traditional parimutuel model, sets the exact odds that a bettor will receive at the moment of the wager — just as is the case with sports betting. Fixed odds wagering has proven very popular in Australia and in the United Kingdom, but many racetrack officials have expressed concerns that it might cannibalize parimutuel handle while also spinning off less revenue for the tracks.
A source familiar with the bill told NJ Online Gambling Thursday that the state’s thoroughbred and standardbred industry leaders continue to negotiate revenue-sharing for fixed odds — a topic that grew mildly contentious during one of those remote May 19 committee hearings.
Still, the goal is for votes in both chambers as soon as possible, given that Monmouth Park officials — who at least initially would go along with fixed odds — would like to have the betting in place ahead of the $1 million TVG.com Haskell Stakes race day at the Oceanport track on July 17.
Photo by Vincent Carchietta / USA Today Sports