New Jersey has been a pioneer in the expansion of legal, regulated sports betting beyond Nevada, highlighted by victory in a six-year battle in federal court that culminated with a May 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Just one month after the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, New Jersey racetracks and Atlantic City casinos began opening sportsbooks.
But there was one notable quirk in New Jersey’s rules, and it has since been copied in several other states.
Virtually every major professional sport has been cleared as a sportsbook offering by state regulators, and gambling on most major college sporting events is allowed as well. The exception is that one can bet neither on a contest involving a New Jersey university nor on college events taking place in New Jersey that involve two out-of-state teams.
This “carveout” dates all the way back to the 2011 ballot question that was approved overwhelmingly by voters statewide.
But now a state senator has introduced a “concurrent resolution” that would — partly — cure this issue by permitting sports betting – including using mobile devices – on college tournament games involving New Jersey teams.
Why the college exception, anyway?
Various reasons for the exceptions have been offered over the years:
- It’s a sign of respect for Bill Bradley, the former U.S. senator from New Jersey and ex-basketball star for Princeton University and the New York Knicks. Bradley was a prime sponsor of PASPA, the since-invalidated federal sports betting law.
- It’s a gesture to Richard J. Codey, the former governor and perhaps the most prominent supporter of the Seton Hall University basketball program.
- It was a way to get wavering legislators to approve of the ballot question. Many are alumni of the state’s leading universities, and voting for gambling that the school’s authority figures generally oppose was considered a poor optic by many of them.
The latter is the most common rationale. Rutgers alum Ray Lesniak, the former state senator from Union County, has said that for him, the important point was to get a state law passed as soon as possible.
Lesniak then figured, correctly, that the NFL and four other sports organizations would exercise their unique prerogative granted under PASPA to sue the state to try to prevent any racetrack or casino — with the Monmouth Park track leading the way — from offering such betting.
Letting the courts sort it out
That put PASPA under the microscope with federal judges. And while the state lost repeatedly at the U.S. District Court level, two Third Circuit Court of Appeals decisions came out 2-1 in the leagues’ favor, rather than the typically unanimous decisions.
The curious nature of PASPA — which not only forbade the gambling in most states, but required even reluctant states such as New Jersey to have it enforced by state officials — eventually led to a finding by six justices that the law unconstitutionally “commandeered” the state into doing their bidding.
There was talk almost immediately by sports betting advocates of adding contests such as Rutgers football games or Seton Hall, Princeton, Rutgers, or other Division I basketball games to the sportsbook menus in the state.
But the need for passage of another state constitutional amendment left Lesniak and others skeptical that such a relatively minor issue could be approved for placement on a statewide ballot.
The new sports betting amendment
On Monday, however, Paul Sarlo — the state senator of almost 20 years for the district that includes the Meadowlands Sports Complex — introduced a concurrent resolution that, if passed by the state Senate and Assembly, would pave the way (though not for regular-season contests played by New Jersey teams).
The lightly amended gambling section of the state constitution would add after the collegiate caveat, “except that it shall be lawful for the Legislature to authorize by law wagering at casinos or gambling houses in Atlantic City on the results of any college sport or athletic event that is a tournament, playoff, championship, or other postseason competition that takes place in New Jersey, including any such event in which a New Jersey college team participates, and that is sanctioned by a nonprofit collegiate athletic association led by its members.”
“The idea is to have sports betting as an entertainment option for visitors who come to the state for tournaments,” Sarlo told NJ Online Gambling, mentioning both NCAA March Madness at the Prudential Center in Newark and a potential college football bowl game at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.
Why not also allow betting for all major college competitions involving New Jersey teams, including the regular season?
There likely would be political pushback from lawmakers and potentially the general public as well. A more narrowly tailored ballot question stands a better chance of passing on both fronts.
Sarlo said he personally “would be OK going the full way” on full seasons of sports betting on such games, but that his focus is on tourism created by out-of-state visitors to Newark and the Meadowlands who in many cases would want sports betting as part of their entertainment menu.
In the year 2025 …
The NCAA recently chose the Prudential Center in Newark as host of the East Regional March Madness semifinals and finals in 2025, reprising the arena’s role from the 2010-11 season.
If the four teams advancing to Newark are from schools in large states such as California, Florida, or Texas that don’t feature legal sports betting, then high-spending visitors from those states to New Jersey would be smart marketing targets.
In that 2011 event, the four schools happened to be iconic hoops programs North Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio State as well as Marquette.
“Imagine if we get schools like that again,” Sarlo said, adding that powerful state Senate President Stephen Sweeney — whose imprimatur is mandatory for any bill’s hopes in Trenton — has signed on as a co-sponsor.
Still, the road ahead is not all smooth.
NJ Referendum 101
The legislature can refer an amendment to the ballot through a favorable vote by three-fifths of both chambers during one legislative session. Or the legislature can refer an amendment through a simple majority vote in each legislative chamber during two successive legislative sessions.
Also, ballot questions traditionally have to be approved by the legislature by the end of June to make it onto the ballot that fall.
That means that this referendum wouldn’t go to voters before November 2021. It only took two months after the 2011 sports betting referendum passed for Gov. Chris Christie to sign a bill into law.
So gamblers in the state could add March Madness men’s basketball games played by New Jersey teams in 2022 to their legal wagering list of options.