- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2015

If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had his way, football fans would be flocking to Atlantic City this weekend to plunk down bets on the Super Bowl as part of his plan to help pull the city out of a tailspin.

Mr. Christie was not always a top advocate for legalized sports betting, but had a change of heart last year after four casinos closed, including the Revel, which opened just two years earlier in a move the Republican governor had hoped would be a “turning point” for the struggling city.

Now his administration is fighting in the court to win the right to become the fifth state to allow sports betting, having come to see it as a way to pump new life into the dying seaside town — and just possibly a way to deal with a potential pitfall in a 2016 presidential bid.

“He has done a quick about-face [on sports gambling] when it became clear that Atlantic City could go down the tank,” said Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University in New Jersey. “It is very clear that he is worried that Atlantic City could come back to bite him as he runs for president.”

Indeed, should Mr. Christie manage to turn it around, Atlantic City could be a crowning jewel for a campaign — but a major problem should it continue to sink while crime rates rise.

With eight casinos, $2.5 billion in receipts and about 20,000 employees, some gaming experts say that Atlantic City is still a success story. But it pales in comparison to five years ago, when the city sported 13 casinos, $5.2 billion in receipts and thousands more employees.

The good times helped fuel the push for the Revel Casino, a Las Vegas-style luxury casino. The state signed off on a $261.4 million tax deal, and the $2.4 billion facility attracted big investors like Morgan Stanley. Mr. Christie said the opening was a symbol of the turnaround of Atlantic City, which he called “critical to the economic success of the state.”

The facility, however, suffered from the economic recession and casinos being built in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Israel Posner, executive director of the Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton College of New Jersey, said Mr. Christie shouldn’t be dinged for having misread the signs.

“If anybody could have anticipated the meltdown in 2008, there would not have been the bankruptcies and money lost,” Mr. Posner said. “Everyone is a genius looking in the rearview mirror.”

Unemployment in Atlantic City now hovers around 11.5 percent, and Mr. Christie installed an emergency management team this month to come up with a plan to right the city’s finances.

Mr. Murray, though, said most New Jersey residents don’t think the state should be involved in improving the casino economy.

“There is a sense that casinos should live and die on their own, and the market should be left to correct itself,” Mr. Murray said.

Mr. Posner said Mr. Christie, who this week launched a political action committee that will allow him to set up a presidential bid, knows he has a lot riding on the city.

“He would be the first one to tell you that the state of New Jersey is what he is going to lay out to the general public as a success story, and he is going to do everything he can so that every piece of it can be presented well to a national audience,” Mr. Posner said.

Mr. Christie has had an off-and-on relationship with sports gambling. He signed a bill in 2012 to authorize sports betting at casinos and racetracks, but pro sports leagues sued and won, arguing it violated a 1992 law that bars sports betting in all states but Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana.

Mr. Christie declared that ruling “sacrosanct,” and in August of last year he vetoed the New Jersey legislature’s attempt to circumvent the decision.

Then some of the casino closures came, and Mr. Christie reversed course again, directing the state’s attorney general not to prosecute casinos and racetracks that offered unregulated betting. And in October he signed new legislation that would deregulate sports betting within the state.

Gaming experts say sports betting, which accounts for little more than 2 percent of the receipts in Las Vegas, is not a silver bullet for Atlantic City. But it can draw customers during big sports events such as the Super Bowl and college basketball’s spring tournaments, which are usually slow months for Atlantic City.

William Thompson, a professor at UNLV who specializes in gaming, said elected leaders have been creative when it comes to attracting business to Las Vegas casinos. He recalled a meeting in the early 1980s when then-Rep. Harry Reid told a crowd off about 100 people that he didn’t much care about the push to have a federal holiday on behalf of Martin Luther King but that it could be good for business to have another three-day weekend between New Year’s and the Super Bowl.

“Harry Reid said we need a three-day weekend for Las Vegas, and I am thinking, the content of your character is going to hell on the craps table,” Mr. Thompson said.

A spokesman for Mr. Reid, who voted in 1983 to approve the federal holiday, said the senator co-sponsored legislation to recognize MLK Day.

Mr. Thompson said Mr. Christie can’t expect much help changing the law from Congress, where Republicans are in control and unlikely to relent. Mr. Reid, meanwhile, is now the Senate Democrats’ floor leader — a powerful position that he would likely use to protect Nevada’s near-monopoly on sports betting.

“The irony is that the state of Nevada preaches states’ rights,” Mr. Thompson said. “If we jump on board and say states have rights to do this but say New Jersey can’t do it, then we are capital ‘H’ hypocrites, aren’t we? But we don’t care about being hypocrites; we want to protect the gambling industry.”

The scenario has ensured that Super Bowl weekend is one of the most lucrative for Las Vegas.

“It will be a very profitable weekend for Las Vegas casinos because we have sports betting,” Mr. Thompson said. “I dare say it also would be for Atlantic City if they were the only place that did it in New Jersey.”

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