OCEANPORT — It’s Christmas morning for New Jersey casinos and racetracks, for a few long-suffering lawmakers, and for folks who gamble on sports.
This morning, the Garden State became the third US state with legal single-game sports betting, joining Nevada (1949) and Delaware (last week).
The fight for NJ sports betting has spanned nearly a decade, tying up significant judicial resources and running up legal fees approaching $10 million. Today is the one-month anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision allowing state-based regulation.
The starting gates opened at 10:30 a.m., and NJ bookmakers began writing tickets for the first time. Betting will initially be limited to in-person transactions, with mobile and internet wagering platforms coming next month.
Monmouth Park, the racetrack in North Jersey, has been preparing for this moment for years, and it hosted the opening ceremonies this morning. The governor was among the key stakeholders in attendance; he had the honors of placing the first bet.
Down in Atlantic City, the new Borgata sportsbook took its first bets this morning, too. Both properties have turned their existing racebooks into combination race/sports books.
PlayNJ is set up at Monmouth Park this morning to provide live coverage of the proceedings.
Monmouth Park ready for sports betting
Most of the activity is at Monmouth Park today, and rightly so. President and CEO Dennis Drazin has been one of the biggest proponents of NJ sports betting since the beginning.
While many were hoping this day would eventually come, Drazin made actual, tangible preparations. Way back in 2013 — long before the legal landscape seemed favorable — Monmouth Park chose William Hill US to serve as its exclusive partner.
“One day sports betting will be legal in New Jersey,” CEO Joe Asher said at the time. “When it is, William Hill will be there.”
The day is here, and William Hill is, too. The group will also operate the sportsbook for Ocean Resort Casino when that property opens under new direction on June 28.
Yesterday, local media reported that Monmouth Park had received its sports betting license, the penultimate step in the process. Opening the betting windows was the very last item on the to-do list.
Gov. Phil Murphy was on site this morning to mark the occasion and offer his thoughts. Like Delaware Gov. John Carney last week, Murphy placed the first legal bet in his state. Some key lawmakers, including former Sen. Ray Lesniak, were also in attendance.
Chris Christie — Murphy’s predecessor and the face of NJ sports betting — could help christen the first Atlantic City sportsbook. Borgata announced an “unnamed special guest,” and the sharp money thought it would be the former governor. But chatter on Twitter says it was Philadelphia 76ers legend Julius Erving:
FOX 29 has learned Dr. J Julius Erving will place first bet at Borgata this morning at 11AM. He made history of the court and about to make a bit of history in Atlantic City gambling. He will be with me live on Good Day at 8:55&I’ll ask who he is gonna bet on. @FOX29philly pic.twitter.com/gd04oJi7BZ
— Steve Keeley (@KeeleyFox29) June 14, 2018
We’ll keep an eye on AC from afar, but these updates will mostly revolve around the events at Monmouth Park.
William Hill US CEO Joe Asher
Speaking of Mr. Asher, he appears to be the man in the highest demand this morning, being shuffled from one microphone to the next. Everyone seems to have the same questions. How long has this process taken? What will the competition look like in NJ? Is Las Vegas worried?
I asked Asher to tell me what was going through his mind as he arrived at Monmouth Park this morning. Here’s what he said:
“This is a long time coming, so it’s very exciting. To come here on the day it’s happening, and to see all the news trucks outside — you start to think of the path we traveled to get here. You see all the new employees working here. It just reinforces the jobs that have been created by the Supreme Court’s decision and the efforts of so many people for so long.
It’s obviously great for Monmouth Park. Dennis Drazin has worked very hard for a long time to make today possible. I’m glad for Dennis.”
Both William Hill US and Monmouth Park have beefed up their respective staffs in preparation for NJ sports betting.
From the press conference
It’s just about 10 minutes before the scheduled starting time, and there is a tangible buzz in the building. Here’s who’s slated to speak before the media:
- Joe Asher
- Ray Lesniak
- Dennis Drazin
- Gov. Phil Murphy
There are at least 20 broadcast cameras set up in front of the podium and dozens more media outlets huddled around. Staff says the conference will begin at 10:30 sharp.
The governor has arrived as we type, making a lap around the room for handshakes and hugs and pats on the back.
More from Asher
Asher was the first to take the mic, sporting a satisfied smile across his face.
“We signed an agreement with Monmouth Park back in 2013,” Asher began, “and I just [dragged] out the press release.” He pulled the page from his pocket and proceeded to read the “one day” quote mentioned above.
“At the time I had no idea if that was 2013, or 2015, or 2018, or 2025,” he said. “We had no idea when that day would come, but obviously it is here today.”
As Asher went on, he echoed some of his previous comments to PlayNJ:
“As I look behind us at all these new William Hill employees that have been training over the last week or two to get ready, to learn what to do — that just shows the jobs that are being created here in New Jersey as a result of this effort to bring sports betting to New Jersey. It’s a tremendous occasion, and I thank you all for being here.”
Perhaps more than anyone in the building, Lesniak played a crucial role in his state’s path to sports betting.
“When I fought about the repeal of the federal ban on sports betting,” Lesniak said, “I had strong blocking along the way.” He thanked Drazin by name, along with Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, and the previous and current governors (hi, Jon Corzine).
“Thanks to this team effort,” he continued, “which included Democrats and Republicans and three governors, New Jersey’s casinos and racetracks will get a big boost from sports betting fans.”
Lesniak said that his state’s “spirit and determination prevailed” in the fight for sports betting.
“Normally I would give a long speech,” Drazin began, “but today is not the day for me. Today is the day for Gov. Murphy to make the first bet, and I want to get him to make the first bet here. Now. So I’m going to forego the speech….,”
Drazin did take maybe 60 seconds to give credit where credit is due.
“Right now, I want to thank Gov. Murphy for acting decisively and swiftly once the legislature handed him this bill. Governor Murphy has said throughout, to us and to NJ, ‘I’ve got your back.’ And he’s got the back of Monmouth County and New Jersey moving forward.”
To a deafening applause, the governor took the podium.
Gov. Phil Murphy
Murphy found a clever angle to kick off his short speech:
“There’s an old adage that you bet with your head not with your heart. For the past seven years, our heads and hearts were in alignment as we fought to overturn an unlawful and unfair federal law.
We knew in our heads we were right, and we knew in our hearts that we’d win. And we have.”
He thanked Lesniak, poked fun at his New York Giants gear, and said he was heading to AC after the press conference.
“As Ray said,” the governor continued, “this is a huge step forward for gaming, for the tracks, for the economy in this state. Dennis, you and Joe and the team have put an extraordinary operation in place. You’re going to be the first to benefit.”
NJ sports betting is live!
With the notable omission of Christie, the group gathered before the media represents the core group that drove NJ sports betting to the finish line. These are the men who made it happen, and they have plenty to talk about.
They’re understandably tired of waiting, though. And there are bets to be placed and champagne to be drank. After those very brief remarks, Drazin ushered Gov. Murphy along to the window to light the fuse on NJ sports betting.
Murphy made his first $20 bet on Germany to win the World Cup (7/2), then another on the New Jersey Devils to win the Stanley Cup (40/1). Right behind him, Lesniak placed bets on France (11/2) and the New York Giants (35/1) futures.
There was… quite a crowd around the window as the bets were placed.
Just like that, legal sports betting is live in New Jersey!
Catching up with Lesniak, Drazin
Sen. Lesniak and Mr. Drazin are friends as well as colleagues, and they shared a toast at one of the tables in the corner of the room.
I decided to bother them while they were smiling and sipping on sparkling beverages, and they were more than happy to chat. I made the mistake of bringing up Delaware, though, giving Lesniak an opening to take a good-natured shot at his southern neighbors.
“First of all,” he said, “I asked Delaware to join our suit to declare PASPA unconstitutional. They didn’t want to. They just wanted to expand their betting platform. So they rode on our backs.”
Lesniak said he was fully confident in the SCOTUS ruling as soon as the court agreed to hear the case.
Given the anticipation for today’s launch, I asked what was going though his mind as he headed to Monmouth Park this morning. He laughed. “I thought… ‘should I really stay with France to win the World Cup?'” He did, let the record show.
Drazin echoed Lesniak’s confidence in SCOTUS, but this successful launch is still quite a relief.
“It’s a euphoric, intellectual experience,” he said. “I feel proud of what we accomplished for NJ. I feel invigorated by the fact that I helped save Monmouth Park.”
NJ sports betting timeline
You probably know the backstory by now, but a quick recap reminds us just how long-in-coming today has been.
Lawmakers first began to discuss sports betting legislation informally around 2009. The idea was formalized with voter approval in 2011 and a new law providing state regulation in 2012. There was a problem, though.
Back in 1992, Congress had passed a federal ban on sports betting called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). Nevada was grandfathered in, but other states (like NJ) were not permitted to offer single-game wagers. Sports leagues — the NCAA, MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL — sued the state to block its new law, citing PASPA, and they won.
NJ tried a different approach in 2014, moving to decriminalize sports betting rather than regulate it. Again, the leagues brought suit. And again, they won. A US Circuit Court rejected appeals from NJ in both cases. That left the state just one legal remedy: an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The nine-member court surprised everyone in 2017, agreeing to hear oral arguments in Christie vs. NCAA. Testimony was delivered in December, and the justices handed down the final decision on May 14.
Justice Samuel Alito and his colleagues struck PASPA down, overturning the rulings of lower courts and allowing states to regulate the activity. Although sports betting was the central issue, the case touched on larger, constitutional matters of states’ rights and federal commandeering.
Browse through a more comprehensive timeline here.
That’s mostly water under the bridge now, and the state is ready to begin recouping those legal fees and opportunity costs. The governor signed the new law on Monday, and the NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement posted its first regulations yesterday.
Sports leagues will not be receiving an integrity fee or any portion of the proceeds from NJ sports betting.