Uphill Battle For In-State College Sports Betting Vote?

Key force behind U.S. sports betting expansion says he's worried about referendum's chances
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On Nov. 2, New Jersey voters will cast ballots in a gubernatorial election, as well as for all 120 state Senate and Assembly committee seats.

Plus there is a statewide ballot question on another issue: whether to expand legal sports betting to athletic contests involving New Jersey universities, and to any college event held in New Jersey such as a football bowl game or March Madness basketball.

And while former state Senator Ray Lesniak of Union County — who spearheaded the quixotic vote a decade ago to allow for sports gambling at state racetracks and Atlantic City casinos — usually is known as an optimist, he has a different sentiment about this vote.

“I’m not confident. I’m thinking that it probably won’t pass,” Lesniak told NJ Online Gambling on Tuesday.

A large part of Lesniak’s skepticism, he said, is based on the results of a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released in July.

Is poll reliable on this issue?

The poll’s core question is a possible subject of confusion: “Do you think betting on college sports in New Jersey should be allowed or should continue to be banned?” The headline on the school’s poll site reads, “FDU Poll: New Jersey voters don’t want betting on college sports.”

Of course, betting on college sports in New Jersey already is allowed, in that the state’s tracks and casinos as well as nearly two dozen legal online sportsbook operators take action on nearly every such contest, producing hundreds of millions of dollars in wagering revenue annually.

What is not permitted is betting on college sporting events by state schools, or on the occasional in-state event that is held between two out-of-state schools.

The first part of the poll question for 803 registered voters across the state in June read, “The New Jersey state legislature is currently debating a bill that would allow betting on our college sports teams in New Jersey.” Did would-be voters understand that was the narrow issue at hand, or might they believe that the question is about amateur athletics in general?

Can low awareness be a pathway?

Lesniak said that the likelihood of limited understanding of the ballot initiative possibly could be the ticket to success.

“You could have one group of those who support this betting voting yes, while many others don’t vote on this at all because they are not familiar with the question,” Lesniak said.

Complicating any handicapping of the vote is the lack of any targeted advertising either for or against the ballot question — unlike in 2016, when a group opposed to ending Atlantic City’s statewide monopoly on casinos spent an estimated $11 million on negative ads.

Resorts Casino in Atlantic City, the owners of slots parlors at Yonkers Raceway and Aqueduct, and the developer of a casino in the works in the Catskills in New York formed a “Trenton’s Bad Bet” marketing campaign designed to sway the electorate against what it called “another scheme backed by Trenton insiders.”

The campaign was so successful that by mid-summer, Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural — a potential winner of a new casino license — publicly announced he was dropping his own multimillion-dollar funding effort in support of the ballot measure.

The casino expansion proposal ultimately was rejected by 77% of voters.

The road not taken by sportsbooks

Lesniak said that he believes that a targeted advertising campaign funded by large sportsbook operators in the state could be quite effective.

“I think that would put it over the top, but apparently those interests don’t consider this important enough,” Lesniak said. “The biggest disappointment will be for Rutgers fans like me.”

The state has only one top-tier football program — Rutgers — and that university also was the only one in the state to qualify for March Madness in 2020. That meant that 65 of the 67 men’s college tournament games were up for wagers in New Jersey in 2020, as Rutgers won its opening-round game before being eliminated.

The ballot question itself is clearer than the FDU poll query:

“A ‘yes’ vote supports this constitutional amendment to allow wagering on postseason college sport competitions held in N.J. and competitions in which a N.J.-based college team participates.

“A ‘no’ vote opposes this constitutional amendment, thus continuing to prohibit wagering on postseason college sport competitions held in N.J. or involving a N.J.-based college team but allowing wagering on other college competitions.”

The decade-old ballot sports betting question, which passed by a 2-to-1 margin, did not include in-state college betting, Lesniak said, because of concerns expressed by state lawmakers — some of them fellow Rutgers alumni — and the perception that voters also might not be comfortable with such wagers.

Ten years after that vote, it appears we will find out if that perception holds water.

Photo: Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY 

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