Former NJ Senator: ‘I Had Great Expectations’ When It Came To Legal Sports Betting

Posted on April 4, 2019 - Last Updated on April 8, 2019

When it comes to NJ sports betting, Raymond Lesniak has a long story to share.

The short answer to why he decided to write a book about it is, “I wanted to lay my marker down.”

But in reality, this is a life story that unfolded over the course of 12 years and eight lost battles in court. And when it came time to put his words to paper, Lesniak said it didn’t take long.

“I lived this. I had it all in me, so I kind of rushed it a little bit to get it out. … When you are involved with something so deeply it just rolls off of your tongue.”

That story, Beating The Odds: The Epic Battle That Brought Legal Sports Betting Across Americawas the reason the former New Jersey state senator was sitting at a table outside of the DraftKings Sportsbook at Resorts signing copies and chatting with visitors.

The man who spearheaded legalizing sports betting in the Garden State is like an open book when it comes to this topic. And to hear him talk, the story is just as exciting as it was back then.

Saving Atlantic City and NJ horse racing

Lesniak said he had two clear motivators in bringing legal sports betting to New Jersey.

As the former chairman of the NJ State Economic Growth Committee, he oversaw the horse racing and casino industries. He was witnessing the demise of both, calling it “ominous clouds circling over our horse racing industry” in the book.

As far as Atlantic City casinos go, the combination of competition from neighboring states and lack of interest in casino gambling from younger customers were two of the problems he saw.

The decline of both was noted in Lesniak’s book:

“I envisioned what unfortunately came to pass — five casinos closing and 15,000 people out of work. Our racetracks were only a few years away from shutting down entirely.”

To the senator, this was unthinkable. To watch two thriving industries fall from grace was disheartening.

Lesniak’s solution to the problem was to look deeper into both online gambling and the larger world of sports betting.

Illegal vs. legal sports betting

Up until last year, Las Vegas had the monopoly on legal sports betting in the United States. It meant New Jersey residents looking to place sports wagers either had to fly to The Strip, visit the neighborhood bookie, or create an offshore account.

The latter two options were and still are not legal.

The short version of the story dates back to 2011 when Lesniak began arguing that the billions of dollars in illegal, offshore sports betting should be retained and taxed by the state.

And so, lawmakers made the push to change the state constitution, removing a big hurdle. Lesniak quickly introduced the Sports Wagering Act, which would eventually lead to the yearslong court battle with the sports leagues.

But the long version actually begins way back on March 30, 2007.

Assemblyman Rudy Garcia was arrested for placing a bet with a Monmouth Park sports betting operation. The raid was known as Operation Thunderbird. The charges were eventually dropped, but his friend and law partner now had a tarnished image.

But it’s this exact situation that served as “the catalyst” to Lesniak’s battle to overturn PASPA.

Today, Monmouth Park has its own legal sportsbook via a land-based partnership with William Hill NJ. But even so, in 2007, such a future was a pipe dream.

Listen to “LSR Podcast Ep. 6: 37 States and Counting + Sen. Ray Lesniak Interview” on Spreaker.

A Rutgers fan and the NJ college betting factor

It’s clear Lesniak is a big fan of Rutgers University. His jacket made it just a tad obvious.

But whether or not the Scarlet Knights made this year’s NCAA Tournament really didn’t matter.

NJ sports betting law prohibits wagering on New Jersey colleges and universities. In fact, when he crafted the bill, Lesniak was more concerned with the bigger prize than he was about the finer details of what bets would be allowed in NJ.

Even though Seton Hall and Fairleigh Dickinson University both made the field of 64 this year, none of New Jersey’s sportsbooks, mobile or retail, could offer odds on any of their games. FanDuel Sportsbook did manage to include both teams in a free bracket challenge game.

But in terms of real-money action, bettors needed to visit a Pennsylvania sportsbook.

Winning the PASPA war

Lesniak could’ve easily dedicated more time to debating the college issue, but he knew there was something bigger at stake.

“There was some push back from some Seton Hall guys in the legislature. … It was a tough enough battle as it was. I didn’t want to fight that battle. I wanted to win the bigger war.”

PASPA was the roadblock that had upended New Jersey’s plans for sports betting eight years ago. And for nearly a decade, the battle raged with Lesniak watching his team lose court battle after court battle.

Until one day, on May 14, 2018, the Supreme Court put an end to it, declaring PASPA violates the 10th Amendment. And exactly one month later, on June 14, legal retail sports betting launched in New Jersey.

Fast forward to today, and Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands Racetrack are still in business. NJ online gambling is generating $30-million plus in monthly revenue for AC casinos. And legal sportsbooks now number almost two dozen.

And let’s not forget that the Atlantic City market now has nine casinos compared to the seven following the closings. Plus, Showboat owner Bart Blatstein is considering bringing back a 10th casino.

The next battle? Lesniak vs. the Wire Act

But it seems Lesniak’s days in court are far from finished.

It was earlier this year when the Department of Justice released a new Wire Act opinion. And it’s one that has turned the legal online gambling world upside down.

If you bring up the topic in casual conversation with the former senator, he makes it clear that he is ready for another battle.

“I am challenging Adelson and the recent Department of Justice opinion that Wire Act prohibits Internet gambling,” said Lesniak. “And that’s hundreds of millions of dollars for the state treasury.”

His book even includes a page entitled “The Sequel: Sheldon Adelson tries to stop Internet gaming in America.”

The 2011 DOJ opinion prompted Lesniak to sponsor online gaming in New Jersey. Adelson was the largest donor to President Donald Trump’s campaign. Lesniak could easily connect the dots and believes “they gave a gift to Sheldon.”

And so, Lesniak is gearing up for another battle and coming out of retirement if he has to. NJ filed an amicus brief in support of New Hampshire’s lawsuit, alongside a long list of other states and lottery commissions.

Like PASPA, there is no exact timeline on a resolution.

But Lesniak did say New Jersey is making a mistake by not filing suit itself.

“They are relying on one New Hampshire case that’s going to get them anywhere. We should be in court right now in New Jersey to reverse that opinion.”

Keep taking a bite from the Big Apple

Be that as it may, the NJ sports betting industry continues to grow. And Lesniak is liking what he is seeing.

There are currently 23 NJ sportsbooks (10 retail and 13 mobile), with more expected to launch later this year. Around 80 percent of the total monthly handle is coming in via the baker’s dozen of NJ sports betting apps.

But the early success of NJ sports betting does not surprise Lesniak.

And his opinion has nothing to do with the fact that he was looking directly into the small crowd assembled inside of DraftKings Sportsbook.

“It hasn’t exceeded my expectations because I had great expectations. It has brought life back to Atlantic City casinos and saved New Jersey’s racetracks.”

The Meadowlands, by the way, via its land-based partnership with FanDuel is the most successful retail operation in the Garden State. The fact that neighboring New York is still in the process of legalizing sports betting certainly helps.

“My message to New York is come on down to New Jersey and place your bets here,” Lesniak said.

Talking March Madness

Lesniak will be doing his next book signing at Meadowlands on Monday, April 8. It’s the same night FanDuel Sportsbook will be showing the NCAA National Championship Game.

March Madness on its own is a success story, and one that, to Lesniak, highlights how far the state has come from just a year ago. Or eight years ago.

And since NJ sports betting was the hot topic of conversation, the topic of who do you like in the NCAA Tournament came up.

“I’ll tell you who I don’t like and that’s Duke. Nobody likes Duke. They win too often.”

But Purdue, a team he saw play his beloved Rutgers University during the regular season, is one he has liked since the beginning. The Boilermakers did advance to the Elite Eight but ended up losing to Virginia, 80-75.

And Duke? Well, Duke lost by one point to Michigan State and will be heading home without a title this time around.

But unlike this time last year, New Jersey residents and visitors legally enjoy March Madness betting.

Talk about beating the odds.

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Bill Gelman

Bill Gelman is a veteran sports writer based just outside of Philadelphia and not too far from the Jersey Shore. Bill spends time in Atlantic City writing about casino openings and expansions, special events and now NJ sports betting and online gambling.

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