Placing Bets

The ability to bet on sports has bipartisan support

By Kellyn Brown

Less than two months after the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which essentially provided Nevada a monopoly on legal sports betting, states across the country have already begun implementing new laws that allow their residents to place bets on professional and amateur games.

The question is how long until Montana follows suit. The answer, I believe, is as early as the next legislative session, which begins in January of 2019.

Delaware and New Jersey were the first to jump at the chance to allow sports betting following the high court’s decision. Both states’ governors, both Democrats, were eager to capitalize on tourism and taxes associated with expanded gambling. In fact, Delaware Gov. John Carney was the first to lay down money in his state, wagering $10 on June 5 for the Philadelphia Phillies to beat the Chicago Cubs. The Phillies won 6-1.

The ability to bet on sports, however, has bipartisan support. According to ESPN, which has been tracking gambling bills across the country, the next five states readying legalization include Mississippi and West Virginia, with both expected to allow its residents to place bets before the upcoming college and pro football seasons.

In an interview with the Beacon earlier this year, state Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, who is a member of Gaming Advisory Council, said one potential hurdle to legalizing sports gambling in Montana is the small pool of bettors, which could make creating an infrastructure to support the practice cost prohibitive.

“If it does take place, the state’s going to want their share of the revenue, probably similar to what they get off the gaming machines,” Blasdel said. “And with it being a smaller market, it’s going to take a little bit to put together.”

On the other hand, a lot of Montanans and visitors to Montana gamble. And the state has largely been open to various types of betting for decades — tying liquor licenses to video poker and keno machines in 1985; increasing the number of gambling machines an establishment can operate in 1991; and, in more recent years, legalizing video line games and increasing pot limits in live card games.

There are, however, exceptions to this trend. In 2003, the Legislature rejected what was then called “Destination Montana,” which would have allowed 10 Las Vegas-style casinos in downtown Butte in addition to a theme park complex.

As ESPN’s bill tracker points out, however, our state already allows certain types of sports betting. The Montana Lottery “currently offers a fantasy-type sports pool for football and auto racing.” Now, the question is whether it’s worth providing a system for casinos to offer more straightforward bets on individual games.

To be sure, gambling has its critics who make valid arguments about the pitfalls of addiction. But lawmakers will have a tough time making that case when there are already casinos on nearly every corner of every urban area in the state.

For its part, the Montana Tavern Association appears open to the idea of legalization. John Iverson, a government affairs consultant for the group, told us in May, “Certainly, if any legislator is looking at bringing legislation forward I’d love to sit down with them.”

He also acknowledged what may work in Las Vegas is unlikely to work here. But, if history is any indication, as more states across the country begin allowing sports betting, Montana likely won’t be far behind.

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