March Madness brings little gladness in N.J. as wait for sports betting continues

 At a news conference at the Irish Pub in Atlantic City, Sen. Jim Whelan, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo says legalized sports betting would help the city and state economy. (Phil Gregory/for NewsWorks)

At a news conference at the Irish Pub in Atlantic City, Sen. Jim Whelan, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo says legalized sports betting would help the city and state economy. (Phil Gregory/for NewsWorks)

As the men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament begins, New Jersey officials are talking about what legalized sports betting would mean to the state.

State and Atlantic City officials said the city’s bars, restaurants, and casinos would be packed if sports wagering were allowed.

Although voters approved legalization of sports betting in 2011 and Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation allowing it, implementation has been stalled because federal law permits sports wagering in only four states, including Delaware.

At a news conference in the Irish Pub in Atlantic City Wednesday, state Sen. Jim Whelan said professional sports leagues are being hypocritical in saying that betting on games will destroy the sport.

“Turn on the TV, ESPN, which has a contractual relationship with the NCAA, and you’ll find out who the favorites are and who they’re picking to beat the spread,” he said. “In fact, the NCAA makes it easy for you because they seed the tournament, but then they act like Louis in ‘Casablanca,’ they’re ‘shocked’ that there’s gambling going on.”

Wagering on the NCAA Basketball Tournament and other major sporting events would help boost Atlantic City’s economy, said Atlantic County Freeholder Colin Bell.

“The key here is some of the biggest sporting events occur in our traditional off-season. We know we have a seasonal market here that March Madness, the Super Bowl are in our gaming off-season,” Bell said. “So even though there might be increased competition, it’s going to be a driver to the Atlantic City casinos at a time when we traditionally struggle to bring in patrons.”

To bring about that rosy scenario, New Jersey is trying to get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its legal challenge of a federal law that allows only four states to have sports betting.

Senate President Steve Sweeney said there’s a 50-50 chance the court will agree to consider the case.

The stakes are high, he said.

“Gaming is a $12 billion underground industry. I talk to the people that runs the sports books in Las Vegas, and it’s billions of dollars,” said Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “It’s not millions, it’s billions, but it’s hundreds of millions into the state coffers.”

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