Over the weekend, Play SugarHouse announced the $500k Pennsylvania Pick ’Em, a $150 buy-in season-long NFL picks contest with a first-place guarantee of at least $125k.
That’s right — Pennsylvania, the state that has perpetually lagged behind New Jersey on all things gambling and sports betting, has an NFL picks contest, roughly in the mold of the famous Las Vegas SuperContest.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, where the Play SugarHouse online sportsbook launched nearly a year before it did in Pennsylvania, we’re a month away from the start of the NFL season and there’s nothing. Bupkis. There are 13 active online/mobile sportsbooks and 10 land-based books, and none of them are offering a Garden State version of the SuperContest.
On July 25, a respected sports bettor who publicly uses the pseudonym Captain Jack Andrews shared what he’d heard via industry sources and noted the response (or lack thereof) in New Jersey:
Back on July 15, I reached out to NJDGE spokesperson Kerry Langan asking her to clarify the whispers I've heard from various NJ books. The operators would like to offer an NFL handicapping contest in NJ, but the DGE has denied their requests.
There has been no reply from DGE.👎
— Captain Jack Andrews (@capjack2000) July 25, 2019
NJ Online Gambling did succeed in getting a response from Kerry Langan on Aug. 1, and though there were elements of vagueness to her answer, she denied Andrews’ assertion.
“In order to approve a new event for sports wagering, DGE must first receive an application for that event from a licensed operator,” Langan wrote on behalf of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. “To date, DGE has not rejected any application from an operator regarding a season-long NFL picks contest.”
So what gives? Why does Pennsylvania have a picks contest and New Jersey, as of now, does not?
We reached out to several New Jersey sportsbook operators about their respective efforts to offer a season-long picks contest, and none gave us any substantial information on the record. A representative of DraftKings did back up what Langan told us, noting, “The NJ DGE does not have any ban on season-long NFL contests.”
But beyond that, specifics were hard to come by. In defense of the sportsbooks, they presumably all want to maintain healthy working relationships with the DGE, and if it was true that one of them put effort into launching a contest and ran into regulatory roadblocks, it would be in its best interest not to discuss that matter publicly.
One source who requested anonymity confirmed to NJ Online Gambling that at least one sportsbook is planning to offer a free-to-enter season-long contest.
FanDuel and DraftKings, the two leaders in the NJ market, both confirmed to us that they will offer free-to-enter weekly picks contests. FanDuel will also have a “survivor” contest (sometimes called an “elimination” pool), which is also free. And DraftKings plans to offer paid weekly pick ’em contests for New Jersey customers, as the sportsbook did last year.
Possible reasons for reluctance
The same source that said a free contest is likely coming indicated that taxing the revenue from a paid season-long NFL picks contest was shaping up as a complication that might have dissuaded some sportsbooks.
Another insider with knowledge of the situation noted that if Executive Director David Rebuck and the folks at the DGE are hesitant to approve a SuperContest-style competition, one reason could be the headaches caused by last season’s controversial DraftKings Sports Betting National Championship.
(On a related note, DraftKings gave a scoop to NJ Online Gambling that there will be a second annual SBNC — and that instead of happening during a playoff football weekend in January again, this one is slated for a regular-season NFL week in December.)
The insider also suggested that cold feet, from both operators and the DGE, could be related to concerns over non-NJ-based entrants using proxies to be make their picks, which would fall under a gray area in the back-and-forth over interpreting the Wire Act of 1961.
Nevada has welcomed the use of proxies in the SuperContest, though the initial entry must be made in-state. But the insider suspects the NJ DGE would be more likely to block, and have to police, the use of proxies, creating significant extra effort, expense, and liability.
What happens in Vegas …
The SuperContest, operated by the Westgate Las Vegas, remains the world’s premier NFL picks competition, attracting high-profile entrants like Jeopardy! champ James Holzhauer and generating a 2018 prize pool in excess of $4 mm. The $1,500 buy-in event, in which each entrant chooses five games to pick against the spread each week, garnered 3,123 contestants last year. That number is almost certain to grow in 2019.
Nobody expects New Jersey to compete with those stats out of the gate — and presumably the buy-ins would be much lower. (In Pennsylvania, SugarHouse is experimenting with just 10% of the SuperContest entry fee.)
Also, in New Jersey, if such contests were up and running this NFL season, there might be a half-dozen or more sportsbooks offering them, and that array of options would reduce the entry numbers for any individual contest.
But the way things are looking, NJ sports bettors will only be able to speculate about how big such a contest at any price point could be. Unless something changes in the next month, what many assumed was a given throughout the NFL offseason — that New Jersey sportsbooks would offer their own versions of the SuperContest in 2019 — will soon shift to a “what could have been?” for 2019, and then to a focus of speculation for 2020.
Photo by Vincent Carchietta / USA Today Sports
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