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Montana lawmakers considering legalized sports betting

Posted: 10:01 PM, Jan 31, 2019
Updated: 2019-02-04 14:14:42-05

LAS VEGAS and BILLINGS — Sunday is the biggest day of the year for advertisers, grocery stores, and sports gamblers.

Last year, $158 million were wagered in Nevada on the Super Bowl, an all-time record. But that number will be dwarfed this year because of a Supreme Court ruling last May that has brought betting into the mainstream more than ever before.

RELATED: On-site vs. mobile fight key to sports betting question in Montana

Sports Gambling has a complicated history in the United States. You can trace origins back to horse racing during the Civil War, and the rise of boxing in the early 1900s. But the industry was largely underground, frowned upon in public thanks to numerous scandals, none more famous than eight members of the Chicago White Sox throwing the World Series 100 years ago this October.

Nevada was the first state to legalize sports betting in 1949, but the federal government imposed a 10 percent tax on winnings, which many early operators couldn’t cover, so the industry was basically dead on arrival. Then in 1974, that tax was reduced to 2 percent, and the Las Vegas sportsbook was born.

“Three elements to having a sportsbook: You want it to enhance the overall resort, the property experience, you want it attract new customers, and make some money,” said Vinny Magliulo, a Vegas heavyweight going back to his days in charge of the Caesars Palace Sportsbook in the 1980s and 90s.

Magliulo was there when Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 1992, barring states from offering any new forms of sports wagering. Just four states offered some type at the time – Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana. That’s why you see Squares Pools in bars, and the famous pig races just outside Red Lodge.

Montana had the chance to legalize full-scale wagering, so why didn’t they? Because of the state’s largest sports governing body, according to one of its most famous sons.

“Montana was grandfathered in. They could have done it, but the NCAA basically put a gun to their head and said you won’t have any more championship events in Missoula or Bozeman if you go ahead and legalize it, and the legislature wilted,” said Brent Musburger.

In his 50 years as a sportscaster, Musburger has always acknowledged that gambling plays a large role in sports, so much so that he now is the managing editor at the Vegas Stats and Information Network, a gambling-centric sports talkshow based in the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, a show that has become much more popular across the country in the past eight months for one reason.

On May 14 of last year, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, making it legal for all 50 states to approve new betting legislation. So far, seven have. New Jersey was first, taking bets starting midway through June, and in just 6.5 months saw $1.25 billion wagered in 2018.

Some believe the more states that allow it, the worse it will be for Nevada, but that hasn’t been the case so far. The two highest grossing months in Silver State history were this past November and September.

“I think what it shows, overall, is that our industry, our niche industry, our cottage industry at one time, is now becoming more mainstream,” Magliulo said. “And I think what it’s doing is creating more customers overall, so I think a good thing.”

That’s what Montana Tavern and Casino owners are hoping for. Kirk Dehler runs The Enterprise, the only casino in Billings that offers parimutuel wagering at horse racing tracks around the country.

“It’s been a really good thing to get people in the door, just having that niche that gets people in the door and keeps them around,” Dehler said. “I’ve known a lot of people that have actually called here and asked, ‘Do you guys have sports betting?'”

The short answer is, ‘No.’ The longer answer is, ‘Not yet, but maybe soon.’

Three different organizations are writing legislation right now, with a draft possibly finished as early as Friday.