A 2016 statewide referendum in New Jersey to end Atlantic City’s monopoly on casino gaming failed miserably.
But was that the end of the dream of constructing a casino just outside of Manhattan that would figure to rank as the most lucrative such facility in the U.S. — if not the world?
“I am never going to to back off on my support for a casino in the Meadowlands Sports Complex,” state Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, recently told a Gamble On podcast audience. “I still believe it is the premier place in the Northeast to have a casino.”
Sarlo, who has represented the Meadowlands area in the Trenton statehouse since 2002, does not dismiss the possibility of a challenge from New York City. The Empire State has passed legislation allowing for such a facility as soon as 2023.
“We are always in a race with Manhattan,” Sarlo said.
While not a gambler himself, Sarlo said a Meadowlands casino is a no-brainer.
“Clearly the market is there, and if people are going to do it, I’d rather we capture it here and keep it here so we can reinvest the revenue,” Sarlo said.
Postmortem on 2016 NJ casino referendum
As for the ill-fated 2016 effort, which lost by nearly a 4-to-1 margin, Sarlo said, “Nobody really put the right energy in to put a campaign behind that, with grassroots appeal and advertising. I was disappointed that nobody put their best foot forward.
“And Atlantic City, they rallied in South Jersey to make it a complete blowout.”
So when is the next, new-and-improved attempt coming?
“Now is not the right time, of course,” Sarlo said of the current COVID-19 pandemic. “I think Atlantic City has bigger issues to deal with — as does Manhattan, which needs to get people back into their buildings. I know we are seeing an influx of people buying homes in south Bergen [County].
“Atlantic City, I don’t see it expanding again, and we need to keep the market there that we do have,” Sarlo said of the nine-casino competition that includes 2018 entrants Hard Rock and Ocean Casino Resort.
“So I don’t see [a casino push] in the next four years,” added Sarlo, who for 20 years has doubled as mayor of his small hometown of Wood-Ridge. “But I’m very hopeful that in 10 years, we’ll have a casino in the Meadowlands.”
In the meantime, Sarlo has other sports-related issues in mind. One is the demolition of the old Meadowlands Racetrack grandstand, which opened in 1976 to nightly crowds of 25,000 or more customers before being replaced by a smaller, sleeker version at the site of the former backstretch in 2013.
Sarlo said that the historic site will serve as extra parking and security for $1.6 billion MetLife Stadium, which a decade ago replaced now-demolished Giants Stadium.
Betting on betting on Rutgers
A modest bid by Sarlo to allow for wagering on major NCAA postseason tournament games in the state, meanwhile, recently has been expanded. Sarlo got his original idea from the NCAA’s announcement that the 2025 March Madness East Regional semifinals and final would be held at the Prudential Center in Newark.
“We’ll be getting four major teams here with a lot of school spirit — and a lot of activity around betting,” Sarlo said. “I decided a slight amendment to allow for that at the Prudential Center or MetLife Stadium [should it gain approval for a football bowl game] might get a lot of support.
“Then all of a sudden, people were telling me that seeing how well sportsbooks are doing in New Jersey — with no issues of integrity or transparency — why not open it up to betting on any New Jersey college events?”
Sarlo said he next reached out to leaders at Rutgers, Seton Hall, and other Division 1 programs, “and there was no pushback.”
As for the NCAA, Sarlo worried that it might ban New Jersey from hosting major college events — again. “But they said that since the Supreme Court had decided [in a 2018 decision paving the way for any state to offer sports betting], they wouldn’t stand in our way, either.”
The state legislature’s ban on betting on games involving New Jersey college contests dates back almost a decade.
“I think there was uncertainty whether it was sending the right message, to have people bet here on certain games involving New Jersey-based teams,” Sarlo said. “In retrospect, we probably should have done this right from the beginning. But I’m confident that voters will support this constitutional amendment.”
The 2011 version to allow for sports betting at state racetracks and Atlantic City casinos passed overwhelmingly, so Sarlo likely is right.
The issue figures to come to a vote in November 2021, with March Madness 2022 potentially leading to legal wagering on Rutgers, Seton Hall, Monmouth, Fairleigh Dickinson, and other Division 1 basketball programs.