By TIM DAHLBERG, AP Sports Columnist
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Jimmy Vaccaro has been taking bets in this gambling town for more than 40 years, so there’s not much he won’t put a price on.
That includes the chances of the U.S. Supreme Court opening the door to legalization of sports betting across the country — something Vaccaro couldn’t have imagined in 1976 when he first set up a sports book just off the glittering Las Vegas Strip.
“I make it an 8-5 favorite,” said Vaccaro, who operates the sports book at the South Point resort. “I feel good about it.”
For once there are some things to feel good about in the push to allow more Americans to do what people in Las Vegas have been doing on a regular basis ever since the point spread was invented — put a few dollars on their favorite team.
What was once no more than a distant fantasy edged a bit closer to reality Tuesday when the Supreme Court agreed to hear New Jersey’s bid to allow sports betting at casinos and racetracks in the state. That the court even agreed to weigh in on the case was cheered as a victory from a sports betting industry that has long been eager to expand outside Nevada.
“It would be a monster step for us,” Vaccaro said.
Monster step might be an understatement. The legal sports books in Nevada took in a record $4.5 billion in wagers last year, and it’s anyone’s guess how many more billions would be in play if some big states like New Jersey or New York get into the act.
And, really, it’s way past time.
Nevada has shown in recent years that sports betting — if properly regulated — is no threat to either Americans with a few bucks in their pocket or the teams they bet on. Even the major sports leagues have come to accept — and even embrace — sports betting, though for some reason they are still fighting New Jersey’s efforts to get a piece of the action.
It’s a far cry from when Vaccaro was making book at the Royal Inn in the 1970s and sports betting was widely seen as both morally wrong and a threat to the country’s sports institutions.
“There’s this black cloud from people who don’t understand the industry that they keep throwing over us,” Vaccaro said. “It’s not fair. It’s not really fair. They talk about fixed games but my answer is always this: I bet you there’s more politicians in jail than bookmakers.”
The case the Supreme Court will likely hear in the fall is centered around New Jersey’s attempt to save struggling casinos and racetracks by offering single-game sports betting, prohibited everywhere but Nevada under a 1992 federal law. The four major sports leagues and the NCAA sued in 2012 after the state passed a law to allow the betting, and until the Supreme Court unexpectedly agreed to hear the case it looked as if the New Jersey effort was dead.
That hasn’t stopped the American Gaming Association — a casino industry group — from pushing for federal legislation to legalize sports betting, an idea that has received a lot of new interest in the wake of the explosion of the daily fantasy industry, which is basically sports betting under another name.
What will be interesting as the New Jersey case goes before the Supreme Court are the actions of the plaintiffs themselves.
A lot has changed in the five years since the leagues and the NCAA filed suit, with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver now on record as saying legal betting is good for the league and the NFL allowing the Raiders to move to a state where sports betting is legal with no restrictions on betting on the team.
What the leagues really should be doing instead of wasting resources on policies of the past is getting together with all interested parties, including the sports betting industry, and helping draft legislation for Congress to allow legal sports betting in states that want it.
Put in the necessary controls, and establish a way for them to be enforced across different states. Give states the option of opting out, and carve out some restrictions on betting college games in states where betting becomes legal.
Do it right and the leagues will have an ally in the sports betting industry. Cut them in on a share of the profits, if that is what it’s going to take.
Stop treating sports betting like it is some sort of evil, and you might be surprised just how innocuous it turns out to be.