Last weekend was vintage Vegas: the boxing match of the year, huge visitation for Mexican Independence Day, and a big handle for one of the city’s most important and unique entertainment offerings: its sports books.
Saturday’s junior middleweight title bout between Floyd Mayweather and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez at the MGM Grand Garden was the big draw. Mr. Mayweather’s latest nickname is “Money,” and he lived up to it by pushing huge numbers of bettors to the counters — and not just in boxing.
Saturday afternoon’s college football showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Texas A&M was a highly anticipated matchup. Sunday’s NFL slate had highly appealing matchups as well, including the “Manning Bowl,” with quarterback brothers Peyton and Eli squaring off as the Denver Broncos met the New York Giants. And Sunday night, the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers met the Seattle Seahawks in a duel of fast-rising, popular quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.
“This will be the biggest betting weekend of the fall, without question,” Vinny Magliulo, a former sports book director, told Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans.
An estimate from one longtime book director pegged the total handle as high as $50 million.
Nevada’s books were “grandfathered” when Congress passed the U.S. Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which banned betting on sports events except in states where it was already legal, or in states that made such betting legal within a year of the federal statute’s enactment. Delaware offers limited sports wagering, but nothing like Nevada’s.
New Jersey wants in on the action. Voters in the Garden State had approved a sports betting referendum in 2011, and the state enacted a law last year, in defiance of the federal ban, to offer wagering at Atlantic City casinos and the state’s horse racing tracks. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia upheld the federal ban and struck down the state’s sports betting law. Joe Asher, CEO of Las Vegas-based race and sports book operator William Hill, told the Review-Journal’s Chris Sieroty that New Jersey’s “best chance of success is in front of the Supreme Court.”
The federal prohibition certainly benefits Nevada, but it’s terrible policy. Bans don’t stop specific activities, they merely drive them into the shadows and criminalize commerce. Legalized sports betting was expected to generate $1 billion in bets and upward of $100 million in annual tax revenue for New Jersey, but the illegal annual handle in New Jersey is pegged at a whopping $20 billion.
So, at least for now, Las Vegas maintains its sports betting niche. Nowhere else in America can people partake in an experience such as the one offered here last weekend. How could anyone observe the scene inside any of the Strip’s books and say it’s deserving of prosecution? Visitors and locals alike flocked to hotels, crowded into books, placed their bets and ate and drank plenty. Just as they will the next big sports weekend.