- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2009

A procession of buses likely will run up and down Interstate 95 at this time next year, filled with football fans traveling to the East Coast’s new mecca for viewing pleasure - Delaware.

Yes, the First State will be the state fans flock to come Super Bowl Sunday 2010.

Why? Because they can watch the game in sports books - and bet.

After years of flirting with the notion, Delaware is on the verge of legalizing a fairly wide-open form of sports betting. And it could come in time for next year’s Super Bowl, say its supporters in the state Legislature.

“I wouldn’t bet the house on it,” said Democratic Rep. John Viola, a member of the gaming committee. “But I would be willing to take a wager on it.”

It’s inevitable that sports betting eventually will be legalized someplace other than Nevada. Government sanctioning of gambling as a revenue producer started in the 1970s with legalized lotteries and expanded when Atlantic City adopted casino gambling.

It’s grown in phases during the past 20 years, from Native American tribes who set up casinos on tribal lands to riverboat gambling and slot machines.

Politicians have come to love gambling and governments to rely on it: Taxes they must take from you, but gamblers eagerly give them their money.

Delaware found gold in slot machines nearly 15 years ago. But surrounding states such as Pennsylvania and, most recently, Maryland also have approved slots, leaving little other than tax-free shopping to attract bettors to Delaware.

So with each passing year, the gambling ante has been raised, and now the game is legalized sports betting. The slots vote in Maryland likely will be the catalyst that pushes Delaware into sports betting.

“We didn’t take that big of a hit from Pennsylvania, but we believe we are going to take a much larger hit from Maryland - in the neighborhood of $70 million in the 2011 fiscal year,” Viola said. “Gaming is our fourth-largest revenue producer.”

Governments in these tough economic times will look for any revenue source they can find.

This marks a unique opportunity for Delaware. The federal government, under pressure from professional sports leagues and the NCAA, passed a law in 1992 banning legalized sports betting.

But the law included a provision that exempted four states with sports betting laws already on the books: Nevada, Montana, Oregon and Delaware. Only Nevada has allowed straight-out sports betting; the other three have or have had some form of a sports lottery. Delaware began one in the 1970s but soon gave it up.

Now they are ready to revive sports betting in some form.

“We have that niche that Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey can’t have,” Viola said. “We feel it will be a draw and offset the losses we might incur because of Maryland coming online.”

Delaware, unlike Nevada, wouldn’t allow straight sports betting, however. The state instead would offer parlay betting - in other words, you can bet on who will win the Super Bowl, but you have to combine that with another component of the wager.

Still, that would offer bettors their best opportunity for legalized sports gambling outside of Nevada (no betting would be allowed on Delaware’s college teams - a burden I’m sure gamblers could accept).

The efforts to legalize sports betting in Delaware had met opposition from former Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who while in office threatened to veto any such legislation. However, the new governor, Democrat Jack Markell, has said he would consider signing a sports betting bill.

“This governor has basically said we are going to evaluate it all; we want to make sure it will be done the right way and work,” Viola said. “They would keep an open mind to it. They haven’t said they are against it or said they would pass it. But if the details are worked out, I believe they would be OK with it.”

Viola expects a vote in mid-March or early April. If a bill is passed and signed by the governor, legalized sports betting would be available in time for the next Super Bowl.

And if such a bill is approved, look for New Jersey to go to court to get the federal ban overturned. A sports betting bill calling for a November referendum already has been passed by the Assembly and now faces action in the state Senate.

Other states will follow, just as they have for lotteries and slots.

Bet on it.

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