June 14 marks the fifth anniversary of the first legal sports bet in New Jersey. It also happens to be the day of the first-ever legitimate sports bet made inside an Atlantic City casino.
The two events were not one and the same.
It seems odd that a city synonymous with East Coast gambling was not where the Garden State kicked off NJ sports betting. That honor belongs to a horse racing track about 90 miles north of Atlantic City and its nine casinos.
Ironically, some of the biggest movers and shakers in the gambling business were gathered in AC for an industry conference at Harrah’s Resort. Not many of them made the trek up the Garden State Parkway to take part in Gov. Phil Murphy placing ceremonial bets at Monmouth Park Racetrack.
The governor’s first bets were on the New Jersey Devils to win the Stanley Cup and for Germany to win that summer’s FIFA World Cup. Both tickets lost, in case anyone is wondering.
How New Jersey sports betting came to be
New Jersey led the national fight to legalize single-game sports betting. A state law passed years earlier to legalize sports betting was intended to help save the struggling horse racing industry (which is why Monmouth was the site of the first bet). After some lower-level legal battles, the NJ sports betting push landed in the US Supreme Court.
In another bit of irony, a federal law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), was being challenged in the highest court in the land. Former NJ Senator and NBA Hall of Famer Bill Bradley was the architect of PASPA, which prohibited widespread sports gambling outside of Nevada.
PASPA was overturned in May 2018. Delaware would beat NJ to the punch in being the first state outside of Nevada to accept a legal sports wager.
All eyes on Atlantic City
But most of the country was looking to NJ and, more specifically, Atlantic City. The seaside resort still holds a sort of nostalgic charm for many people.
It seems quaint to think about now. But there was a buzz in the air that June day in 2018. It was an enormously significant moment in the story of NJ gambling and US sports betting.
It was also one of the more memorable days in my professional career, which is why I recall much of it in incredible detail.
Pre-pandemic life seems so long ago
Yours truly was the Atlantic City casino reporter for the local newspaper back then. My former job granted me the good fortune of a front-row seat to witness history.
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa would lay claim to accepting the first sports bet at a casino about 30 minutes after Murphy’s photo op in Oceanport.
Philadelphia sports icon and NBA Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving and former state Senate President Steve Sweeney placed the first ceremonial bets at Borgata. Dr. J bet on the Philadelphia Eagles to repeat as NFL champions. Sweeney placed a Super Bowl futures bet on the Green Bay Packers.
The story didn’t end there, though.
Just a few hundred yards from Borgata, the East Coast Gaming Congress and NextGen Forum was taking place at Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center. Murphy was scheduled to be the lunch keynote speaker at the gambling conference.
Following the governor’s victory lap at ECGC’s luncheon (his name is listed on the successful sports betting court case, although former Gov. Chris Christie and former state Sen. Ray Lesniak deserve the political credit), Murphy had another ceremonial sports wager to make.
Maybe the media was burnt out from all the sports betting hoopla, or maybe they just didn’t care anymore. I got a call from my public relations friend at Borgata, who let me know the governor was on his way over. He planned to hit the sportsbook and then leave. In and out in 10 minutes or less, I was told.
I wanted to get a photo and a quote. My newspaper would be the only media outlet to have this bit of the story, and I was determined to get it.
Nothing beats good ‘ol fashioned beat reporting
I sprinted from Harrah’s, running across the empty lot between the two casinos. If life were easy, I could have cut across the surface parking lot and entered the casino right next to the sportsbook.
But, the universe had other ideas that day. A fence around the lot’s perimeter prevented my access.
Instead, I had to circle around to the valet entrance to get into Borgata. By this time, I’m dripping sweat, my face is beat red (I was a heavy smoker at the time) and I look like something the cat just dragged in.
I dash into Borgata and start making my way toward Murphy.
I’m ducking between slot machines to avoid the slow-moving casino crowds. I’m nimbly dodging scooter-riding patrons and deftly side-stepping cocktail waitresses with full drink trays.
Finally, I pop out into an open area and see Murphy about 100 yards away. He was leaving the sportsbook (technically, it is the racebook), and I started sprinting toward him.
That was a bad idea.
When knowing a name can save you from arrest
From out of nowhere, several of NJ’s best-dressed state troopers stop me dead in my tracks and form a human wall around the governor in the blink of an eye. I’m almost positive I was seconds away from either being tasered or tackled if Murphy hadn’t recognized me and addressed me by name.
Murphy told me he had placed two more bets. One was on NASCAR driver and NJ native Martin Truex Jr., and the other was on the New York Mets.
I got my quote but missed the photo op.
Today, online sportsbooks overshadow the retail operations in terms of NJ sports betting revenue and NJ sports betting bonuses But, I can promise you that June day will go down as one of a handful that will forever stand out in the history of gambling in Atlantic City.
And I had a front-row seat for all of it.