New Jersey has been the national leader in legal, regulated sports betting volume almost since such wagering launched in the summer of 2018. More than $6 billion was bet legally in the state in 2020.
So a referendum on the statewide November ballot to add wagering on athletic events involving in-state college teams might seem like a slam dunk. A poll released Thursday by Fairleigh Dickinson University suggests otherwise — at least to this point, anyway.
The poll question was:
“The New Jersey state legislature is currently debating a bill that would allow betting on our college sports teams in New Jersey. What do you think? Do you think betting on college sports in New Jersey should be allowed or should continue to be banned?”
Nearly half of those polled, 49%, said “betting on college sports in New Jersey should continue to be banned.”
Only 25% said such wagering “should be allowed,” while 23% said they were “not sure.” Another 3% did not respond.
“Many voters still aren’t sure where they stand on the matter,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the executive director of the poll. “But supporters are going to need to change a lot of minds if they want to get this passed.”
Possible confusion of poll responders
Note that the latter part of the poll question asked, “Do you think betting on college sports in New Jersey should be allowed or should continue to be banned?”
Of course, betting on college sports in New Jersey already is allowed — and it is wildly popular, and legal. That ship, as the saying goes, has already sailed.
The NCAA March Madness men’s basketball tournament, for example, had a schedule of 67 games this spring, and all but two of them were “on the board” at racetrack and Atlantic City casino sportsbooks, and also through nearly two dozen online sportsbooks.
The exceptions were a first-round win by Rutgers University and the Scarlet Knights’ second-round loss, as no other state university qualified for the tournament.
While the first part of the poll question notes that this vote will be about allowing wagering on New Jersey sports contests, it doesn’t clarify the actual landscape.
A large percentage of the population has no interest in sports, and many who are have no interest in gambling. Neither group is likely to be aware that every single major college football game on television throughout each fall — and then every postseason bowl game in December and January, including the NCAA national championship game — is already on the menu for gamblers at each of the sportsbooks in the state.
If poll respondents were informed that all but a tiny fraction of U.S. collegiate athletic contests have already been open for betting in the state for three full years, it’s possible it would hold sway among those polled, though difficult to be certain of it.
And though the state Division of Gaming Enforcement doesn’t break down annual “handle” — or amount wagered — between college and professional sports, there is no question that of the $1.34 billion bet on football in New Jersey in 2020, hundreds of millions was wagered on the college version of the game.
The same would hold true for college basketball as a significant share of the $1.14 billion bet on that sport last year.
Who likes the idea of betting on NJ college teams?
In FDU’s press release, it boils down the poll question to: “Should betting on college sports be allowed?”
Independents were most supportive, relatively speaking, with 32% saying the betting should be allowed and 38% saying it “should continue to be banned.” Another 26% said they were “not sure.”
Republicans also expressed 32% support, though 51% opposed the idea while 16% chose “not sure.” But Democrats polled were adamant: Only 18% said college sports betting should be allowed, while 49% disagreed and 29% chose “not sure.”
Men overall were slightly opposed — 36% to 45% — while only 14% of women backed the idea and 54% rejected it. The question also drew modestly more support among those who did not go to college than those with some college or one or more degrees.
As happens in almost every poll in almost every state in the past decade or more, asking people “Should [virtually any topic] be allowed?” fares best with those under age 35 and gradually worse with each subsequent age group.
In this case, those age 18-to-34 (although one must be 21 to wager on sports in New Jersey) gave the only subgroup plurality in favor, at 36-35%. For those 65 and older (all of whom would have reached adulthood before the first casino opened in Atlantic City), 64% opposed more betting and only 11% supported the notion.
For proponents, is this a good year for a vote?
Cassino noted that in non-presidential election years, older and more highly educated voters are disproportionately more likely to go the ballot box. This November’s ballot, aside from the referendum, will feature a re-election bid by Gov. Phil Murphy and voting for all 120 seats in the legislature.
“This change might have had a better chance in a higher turnout year,” Cassino said. “But among the voters who tend to turn out the most, there’s just no appetite for expanding gaming yet again.”
Cassino added that “status quo bias” also can come into play.
“When people have less information about a ballot item, they tend to support the status quo, rather than a change,” Cassino said. “The text of the measure that will be on the ballot may reinforce this, as it explains that betting on [New Jersey] college sports teams is currently not allowed.
“As it is, opposition is some combination of not wanting to change things without understanding the options, and just plain opposition to more expansion of gambling in the state,” said Cassino. “Supporters have to explain what they’re proposing, and hope that voters are going to buy in.”
That said, in 2011 voters read this interpretative statement about the question of legalizing sports betting in the state:
“This constitutional amendment would authorize the Legislature to pass laws allowing sports wagering at Atlantic City casinos and at racetracks. Wagers could be placed on professional, certain college, or amateur sport or athletic events. However, wagers could not be placed on college games that take place in New Jersey or in which a New Jersey college team participates regardless of where the game takes place. A wager could be placed at a casino or racetrack either in-person or from any other location through an account wagering system that uses telephone, Internet or other means.”
That ballot question — a major change to the status quo — passed by a 2-to-1 margin.
What backers can learn from the poll
Supporters of removing the exception on betting on New Jersey college teams, which is currently the U.S. gaming industry’s only major source of criticism of the state’s sports betting platform, would do well to study the poll results.
The large number of undecided voters can be seen as an opportunity, for instance. Also, the state legislature has grown increasingly Democratic for the past decade or more, and Murphy is a significant favorite for re-election as governor.
Murphy has been a big supporter of legal gambling throughout his first term, and the legislature last month voted nearly unanimously to put this question to voters in November. If the incumbents choose, they can appeal to voters to support this ballot question as well as seek their vote to be re-elected.
And which group is most opposed of all at this juncture, at least according to the poll? Democrats, who almost certainly will cast a significant majority of the votes.
The fine print
“The survey was conducted between June 9 and June 16, 2021, using a certified list of registered voters in New Jersey. Voters were randomly chosen from the list, and contacted in one of two ways. Three-quarters of the respondents (608) received an invitation through SMS (text) to fill out the survey online, via a provided link. The other quarter of respondents (195) were contacted via telephone, using the same registered voter list.
The survey covers 803 registered voters in New Jersey, ages 18 and older, and was conducted entirely in English. The survey was carried out by Braun Research Inc. of Princeton. Of the interviews, 123 were conducted over landlines, the remainder via cell phones.
The data were weighted to be representative of the registered voter population of New Jersey. The weights used, like all weights, balance the demographic characteristics of the sample to match known population parameters. The weighted results used here are balanced to match parameters for sex, age, and race/ethnicity.
In this poll, the simple sampling error for 803 registered voters in New Jersey is +/-3.46 percentage points, at a 95 percent confidence interval.
This error calculation does not take into account other sources of variation inherent in public opinion studies, such as non-response, question wording, or context effects.”