Legalized pro sports betting in Jersey a long shot, but it does make sense


The Super Bowl champion New York Giants had barely finished brushing the confetti from their coats when word of another long-shot proposition began to surface in the world of professional sports.

It's not the biggest story of the week, but perhaps it ought to be. The New Jersey Legislature is once again entertaining the possibility of legalizing betting on professional sports. What only a few years ago was thought to be an outrageous suggestion now seems merely highly improbable.

The bill, introduced Jan. 24, has passed out of the tourism and gaming committee, and is scheduled for a vote of the full Assembly on Thursday. Although even its backers call it a prohibitive underdog -- it's been tried unsuccessfully two other times in the past four years -- each time it comes before the public the specter of legalized bookmaking gets less controversial.

If passed into law, the bill would permit the public to vote on whether to permit legal betting at Atlantic City casinos on professional sporting events. I'm guessing the public would rush to the polls and approve it in a landslide like a bunch of inveterate sports junkies.

The betting would be regulated by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission instead of the current system of oversight and enforcement, which I believe is supervised by the Soprano family.

Federal law would have to be changed to accommodate the betting desires of New Jersey residents, but the bill's prohibition on gambling on college sports would likely make even Sen. John McCain shrug with indifference. (You may recall McCain made hay out of attempting to ban legalized betting on college sports, a move that essentially and nonsensically singled out Nevada's legal sports books.) With so much legalized gambling going on in so many states, logical reasons for maintaining a ban on sports betting outside Nevada become harder to justify and seem almost corny. Not that members of Congress aren't capable of justifying just about anything in the name of protecting adults from themselves: It's what many legislators do best.

But, let's be honest, on a busy weekend there's more betting going on in sports bars across America -- almost all of it illegal -- than takes place in a month at Las Vegas books. The Internet is jammed with so many sports betting sites I'm surprised the University of Phoenix doesn't offer a master's degree in bookmaking.

The odds of the bill passing through the New Jersey Legislature during its current session seem remote. Some politicians would adjust their political eyeshades and take the bet off the board.

"I think Appalachian State would have to beat the Giants before the federal government would allow us to change the law to permit sports betting in casinos," New Jersey Senate President Richard J. Codey told Tom Hester of the Newark Star Ledger. "That's about where our odds stand right now."

He's probably right.

But in a country brimming with gamblers and sports fans, in a state that is second only to Nevada in its celebration of its legalized casino culture, battling sports betting in Atlantic City makes zero sense. And it might even be good for Las Vegas. At the very least it would compel the anti-bookmaking hypocrites to pick on someone else once in a while.

The long-shot professional betting bill isn't the only news on the sports gambling front.

Last November, investigators busted a mobbed-up sports betting ring that worked out of the poker room of the Borgata resort. And just this week, New Jersey authorities closed the deal on an investigation of what was considered to be one of that state's largest sports betting rings when 37 people were indicted on charges ranging from racketeering and money laundering to promoting gambling and forgery.

Other than that, New Jersey's sports betting prohibition is looking like it makes a lot of sense.

And there's one final story breaking in the world of sports gambling. This one from Nevada, where the state's sports books handled $92 million in Super Bowl bets, just shy of a record. In tough economic times, with states sniffing for additional revenues, legalizing sports betting in New Jersey makes a lot of sense.

Sure, it's a long, long shot.

But isn't that what most sports pundits were saying just a few days ago about the Giants?

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.