As the Seattle Seahawks were putting the finishing touches on a 43-8 destruction of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XVIII more than $100 million of losing tickets were being torn up in Las Vegas. The handle in the Silver State on the Super Bowl alone was $119.4 million, more than had ever been bet on the big game – any game – before. The books took a record profit of $19.6 million to the bank.
Nevada is the only state in America where sportsbooks operate legally. In 1992 the Professional Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) was enacted by Congress that banned betting on sporting events in the United States. Only four states – Nevada, Oregon, Delaware and Montana – were exempt since they offered a form of sports betting at the time. While both Oregon and Montana each boast land-based casinos neither has opened a sportsbook and in Delaware sports betting is available only on football and only on so-called parlay cards which require multi-team plays. The maximum bet is $100 per card.
In 2015 the American Gaming Association (AGA) released its first ever official estimate on Super Bowl wagering. They are expecting $3.8 billion to be bet illegally on the game – some 35 times more unlawful bets than lawful ones. Nearly $4 billion is wagered on sports in Nevada’s 187 sportsbooks each year so that would translate to a total illegal market for sports betting America to around $150 billion a year. How large an illegal market is that? Americans spend 50 percent more on sports gambling than they spend on beer each year.
Americans can legally bet on horse and dogs and in some states even on people at jai alai frontons. During college basketball tournament time NCAA betting pools are passed around American offices more enthusiastically than Secret Santa gifts. Clear-eyed NBA commissioner Adam Silver has come out on the record as supporting legalized betting on professional basketball to end the hypocrisy. The rational of American sports leagues against making gambling on games legal everywhere has been to preserve the integrity of the game but Silver can see the increasing fervor for sports betting. He reasons that his sport is better off in a world with regulated sports betting than the shady one where billions of unseen dollars are changing hands.
It is not like America’s sports leagues are not already complicit with gambling. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) claims more than 56 million Americans are playing fantasy sports, including nearly 37 million fantasy football players alone. These folks are playing for money and the leagues themselves sponsor forms of fantasy play. In major league baseball, for instance, MLB runs a Beat The Streak contest where players select one player each day and if that player gets a hit the “streak” for prizes stays alive to pick a new player the next day.
One of the fastest growing segments of the fantasy world is daily fantasy games where players compete not for an entire season but form teams on a daily basis in a competition for money. These games are advertised openly and freely and any American can play. The estimate of the fantasy sports market alone is $5 billion annually.
America is, as Commissioner Silver attests, moving inexorably towards legalized single game betting. Until that day arrives, however, United States residents can indulge their passion for sports betting at online sportsbooks. But only a few welcome American customers. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 did not outlaw betting online but it did make it illegal for banks to handle online casino transactions. That has proven enough of a deterrent to keep all but a few sportsbooks accepting US bets – such as TopBet, Bovada, Five Dimes, BetOnline and a few others.
So it is possible to place a sporting bet in the USA and it is legal. It is just not convenient for many players. The illegal sports betting market still dwarfs the legal one and is growing fatter every year. Change is on the way.