FREEHOLD, N.J. (AP) — Sipping a beer and killing time in the 15 minutes between races at Freehold Raceway one recent afternoon, the guy in the Jets hat pondered the possibility that he might one day be able to put $100 down on his favorite football team at the same time he plunked down cash on the next sure thing at the track.
"There would be a lot more of us here, that's for sure," said Steve Kerrigan of Brick, who bears a passing resemblance to Jets coach Rex Ryan, and who wouldn't mind a wager or two on Gang Green.
New Jersey voters will be asked on the Nov. 8 ballot whether they want to make sports betting legal. It will be the only public question on the ballot this fall, and if pre-election polls are any indication, it should pass.
But even if it does, a federal ban on sports betting in all but four states must be lifted before anyone in New Jersey can start making legal bets on the Jets, Giants or Eagles, or any other pro team, for that matter. The state missed a 1991 federal deadline to legalize sports betting, and was left out of the 1992 law that allowed it in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana. Nevada is the only state taking legal bets on individual games.
Raymond Lesniak, a state senator, sued the federal government, aiming to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in March, but Lesniak, an Elizabeth Democrat, nevertheless plans to introduce state legislation right after the referendum to lay the groundwork for allowing sports betting in New Jersey if the ban is ever lifted. He said the bill will be fast-tracked through the legislature and sent to Gov. Chris Christie to sign before Jan. 10 when the legislative session ends.
Sports betting proponents want to help the state's struggling casinos and horse racing tracks, where bets would be taken, and provide a new source of tax revenue from a huge pool of money flowing untaxed to illegal bookmakers often allied with organized crime, or to unlicensed offshore Internet sites.
"A 'yes' vote for sports betting will give a huge boost to casino revenues and attract many more tourists to Atlantic City for numerous sporting events throughout the year," Lesniak said. "It will save our horse racing industry as well, once we challenge and overturn the unfair and unconstitutional federal ban that allows Las Vegas to reap its benefits, along with organized crime-run betting rings and illegal offshore gaming sites."
Opponents include the National Football League. At a 2010 public hearing in Atlantic City on proposals for sports betting, NFL spokesman Timothy McDonough reiterated the league's long-standing opposition to legalized betting on its games. He said such gambling games could undermine their integrity in the eyes of fans.
"Mistakes are made in the course of the game, either by the ref or by players," he said at the hearing. "But when mistakes are made, to a less rational person who is placing a bet, a mistake becomes a fix."
It would work like this: Bettors would go to an Atlantic City casino or to a horse racing track, where the upcoming games and odds would be posted. Bets would consist of two elements, the betting line or point spread, and the price to bet. If the Jets were favored by 3 points over the Chargers and the price was set at $110 for a $100 bet, bettors would hand the casino or track $110 and get a slip recording their bets. If the Jets won the game by more than 3 points, bettors would get back $210 — the $110 they originally put up, plus the $100 they won.
If the Jets lost the game, the casino would keep the $110 the bettor put up. The extra $10 the bettor was forced to put up front represents the source of profits for the casino; the other $100 would go toward paying customers who won. Although legislation has not yet been written, Lesniak said he expects the casinos sports betting winnings would be taxed at the same 8 percent rate as normal casino winnings.
Joseph Brennan, CEO of the Interactive Media Entertainment & Gaming Association, an Internet gambling trade group, noted a national gambling study in the 1990s pegged sports betting — legal and otherwise — as a $380 billion industry. Now, he said, "you're probably looking at a half-trillion-dollar industry," almost none of which is taxed to help states, or regulated to protect customers. Last year gamblers legally wagered more than $2.7 billion on sporting events in Nevada.
The bill is seen as a boon to Atlantic City's 11 casinos and four racetracks: the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, Monmouth Park in Oceanport, Freehold Raceway, and Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing. A former race track site in Cherry Hill also would be eligible; lawmakers feared losing the affluent suburban market to nearby Philadelphia if Pennsylvania ever were to approve sports betting.
The benefits would come not so much by flooding the casinos and tracks with new revenue from sports bets, but by bringing new bodies to the facilities who would then presumably gamble and spend money on other things as well.
"You place your bet, and then what?" Brennan asked. "You watch the game, you buy drinks and some food, maybe play some slots. Maybe you get a room and stay overnight. It's all about getting more people in so they eat at the restaurants and play at the tables. Super Bowl week and the NCAAs, the casinos would be full."
And the horse tracks are desperate for any new revenue now that the $30 million subsidies they used to get from casinos each year in return for not having slot machines at the tracks have ended.
"Race tracks need all the help they can get in New Jersey," said Reed Totten of Jackson, who works at Freehold Raceway guiding winning horses to the winner's circle for photos. "All the other states around us have slots. They're killing us."
A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll this month showed 52 percent of New Jersey voters favor the measure, and 31 percent opposed. The poll of 800 voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Racing fans like Phil Gartner of Farmingdale would love for sports betting to become legal.
"I'm for it all the way," he said. "I'd do it at least twice a week. I enjoy the action. It gets me out of the house a little bit."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC