As Voters Decide On College Tweak, NJ Sports Betting Rebels Look Back

Ten years after wagering was authorized, proposal to add state college events seems a 'dead heat'
referendum
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As the 10-year anniversary of the New Jersey referendum that ultimately revolutionized the state of legal sports betting in the U.S. looms, its founding fathers recalled to NJ Online Gambling on Monday their pre-Election Day confidence in the result.

Never mind that a federal law passed by Congress in 1992, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, expressly banned Las Vegas-style sports betting outside of Nevada.

Voters across the state, advocates of sports betting believed, would thumb their nose at such a restriction. They were proven right when voters approved legalization in November 2011 by a 60-40 margin.

“We did some polling, and we knew it would win overwhelmingly,” said former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, considered the cornerstone of the movement. “I think it was the right thing to do, and it’s something that people wanted to be able to do.”

He was echoed by Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin, who joined with fellow thoroughbred horsemen from 2012-18 in defending against a lawsuit filed by the NFL and other sports organizations.

“I thought it was a slam dunk, no question about it,” Drazin said. “There had been a study done by Congress, I think, in 1999, showing the extent of illegal wagering in the country at around $400 million.”

More confident recollections

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a leader in state gambling issues thanks to his having spent decades working as an Atlantic City casino executive, said that Lesniak convinced him of the merits of the ballot measure.

“I always was confident that it would pass,” Caputo recalled. “We didn’t even need much publicity. The resources were there in the media, and the pros and cons were debated.”

Joe Brennan Jr. (no relation to the author) was the former president of the Interactive Media Entertainment & Gaming Association who worked with Lesniak at the dawn of the effort to see sports betting legalized in the state.

“We started this effort in New Jersey in December 2008, because the numbers showed that this was the state where [a referendum] was most likely to succeed,” Brennan said.

“Fairleigh Dickinson [University] had done some early polling on the question in the weeks leading up to Election Day, and they were breaking 2-to-1 in favor. I was very confident that we’d win, so much so that in some ways I was looking past the vote to what came next.”

Behind the reluctance to include NJ college games

Since state residents overwhelmingly passed sports betting legalization, years after also voting in 1976 to make New Jersey the first state outside of Nevada to legalize casinos, it might seem like this year’s ballot question is a no-brainer.

Betting on every sport from the NFL to Russian table tennis is now legal, with a modest exception: No legal wagering is allowed on games involving New Jersey college teams, or on games played by other colleges within state boundaries.

Tuesday’s ballot question is about whether to remove that modest restriction.

At the time the sports betting law passed, Caputo recalled, there was “a bone of contention” among lawmakers about betting on events such as a Rutgers football or Seton Hall basketball game. PASPA had been sponsored by well-respected former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, who had been a legendary basketball player at Princeton.

Many legislators also are alumni of those schools, and university leaders were wary of the idea of state-sanctioned betting on the schools’ games.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo, who represents the Meadowlands district, earlier this year floated the concept of a ballot question to allow for betting on major events in the state, such as basketball games in the 2025 March Madness East Regional that has been awarded by the NCAA to the Prudential Center in Newark.

Sarlo then checked in with the NCAA and the major universities and found that with the U.S. Supreme Court repeal of PASPA in 2018, resistance to college wagering had all but disappeared. So he expanded the bill to include state university contests as well.

The forecasts from the experts

“With no real public advocacy from any group, I predict it as a tossup,” Sarlo said. “Unfortunately, a defeat in this contest would result in a significant revenue loss to the state in the future.”

Lesniak referred to the vote as “a dead heat” likely to be decided by fewer voters than the number picking a gubernatorial candidate when at the polls.

“I’m surprised by it being so close,” Brennan said. “As an operator seeking a New Jersey betting license, I hope it passes — not only for business, but because when New Jersey college games can only be bet on with offshore sportsbooks or with the bookie on the street, that’s when there can be issues of integrity. Letting regulated sportsbooks take this action would be the best way to keep things on the level.”

Caputo said “there does seem to be more resistance to this vote, for whatever reason. I’m just glad we passed what we did [in 2011].”

Drazin was the most confident, saying, “I think it’s going to pass — the polls are improving, so we’re much closer than we were.”

Movement in the polls

Indeed, a July poll by FDU had one-quarter of registered voters saying that betting on college sports should be allowed, with half saying that it should continue to be banned. The remainder said that they weren’t sure, or didn’t want to answer the question.

Of course, the question arguably was misleading, as betting on college sports in New Jersey has been allowed since 2018, with the exception of in-state games.

In another FDU poll released Friday, 39% backed the ballot question and 41% opposed — well within the poll’s margin of error.

Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics and the executive director of the poll, echoed Lesniak’s analysis.

“There hasn’t been much publicity around this ballot question, and a lot of people are going to miss it, or skip it. It’s much closer than it was before, and there are many voters who aren’t going to make a decision about it until they get into the ballot box.”

Photo: Shutterstock

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