Text of Steve Geller’s remarks to NCLGS on Sports Gambling. Discussion and case law of legality of Internet Sports; Does the Dormant Commerce Clause affect Sports Integrity laws?; What are appropriate tax rates for Sports Betting?
Below are the lightly edited remarks which I made at the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States (NCLGS) conference in Minneapolis on July 12. I was the Founder of NCLGS in 1995, served as its first President, and currently serve as General Counsel of NCLGS. I have added some case citations and slightly expanded one or two topics.
I have 5-7 minutes to discuss “Sports Betting – The results and lessons after one year.” There were several things I wanted to discuss, and realized that I didn’t have the time. So, instead of discussing one item, I’ll raise questions about 3 items. Most of this Session will be the Q & A, and I’ll be happy to elaborate on the questions I’ve raised in the Q & A.
First, let’s talk about the legality of internet sports wagering. Many states have permitted this, mostly through affiliations with land-based sports gambling sites. In some cases, actual physical registration at a land-based site is required. A different model, however, is the legislation which Maine Governor Janet Mills just vetoed which would not have required any affiliation with a land-based entity.
Many people think that when the US Supreme Court threw out PASPA in Murphy v. NCAA (832 F. 3d 389, 2018) that this meant that states could legalize sports betting, including internet sports betting. I disagree. The Wire Act (18 U.S.C 1084) is still valid law. There have been recent court challenges to the November 2018 OLC opinion that the Wire Act applies to types of gambling other than sports betting; in fact a Federal District Court in New Hampshire (New Hampshire Lottery Commission V. William Barr, opinion 2019 DNH 091P) recently ruled against the OLC opinion, but there has never been any question that the Wire Act applies to Sports Wagering.
Section 1084 (a) of the Wire Act creates criminal liability for using a “Wire Communication” for the transmission of bets or wagers in Interstate or Foreign commerce. Section 1084 (b) creates a “safe harbor” for transmitting information “assisting in the placing of bets… on a sporting event… from a State… where wagering on that sporting event or contest is legal into a State… in which such wagering is legal”.
There have been a series of cases that hold that the Internet is a wire communication, and further that even if a signal starts and ends in the same state, but has been transmitted through a hub, exchange, or server in another state, that means that it’s been used in Interstate Commerce. I have a series of cases which show this. (See, for example, U.S. v. Yaquinta, 204 F.Supp 276; U.S. v. Kammersell, 196 F.3d 1137 10th Cir, 1999; U.S. v. Cohen, 260 F.3d 68 2d Cir, 2001; U.S. v. Lyons, 740 F.3d 702, 1st Cir, 2014) Many people have claimed that the Wire Act didn’t apply in their cases because they were in locations where Internet gambling was legal, or for other reasons. They continued these arguments while they were serving their sentences in Federal Prisons. My advice is not to argue with the people with guns and badges.
Reading all of this together, it seems that there are two serious issues here.
First, it appears to me that unless a completely in-state based system is set up, and that’s what wireless gambling is based on, any type of internet or wireless gambling that goes out over existing systems is probably in violation of the Wire Act. Understand that geofencing is probably not sufficient, that the system would need to be set up in a fashion that ensures that no part of the signal ever leaves the state.
Second, even in land-based casinos, if information on a sporting event is transmitted from a state that hasn’t adopted sports betting, is that legal? Remember that the “Safe Harbor” applies to information on wagering “from a State… where wagering on that sporting event or contest is legal into a State… in which such wagering is legal”. If the Utah Jazz is playing a basketball game against Portland Trail Blazers, and the game is occurring in Utah, where all types of gambling are illegal, can a wager be placed on that game in California, assuming that sports betting is legal in California? I offer no opinion; I merely raise the question.
Second Topic – One that will really excite you – The Dormant Commerce Clause!! Simply put, this Constitutional interpretation says that a law can’t discriminate against out-of-state actors or have the effect of favoring in-state economic interests over out-of-state interests. Several states, for example Delaware, New Jersey, Illinois, and others permit wagering on sporting events in other states, but make them illegal or illegal for college sports in the state where the wagering takes place for integrity reasons. Does this mean that the states are protecting their own sports teams from improper acts, but don’t care about the integrity of sports teams in other states? If so, it probably violates the Dormant Commerce Clause.
Last Topic – What’s an appropriate tax rate?
Let me begin by saying that I don’t know, and I believe that no one else does. Tax rates on Sports Gambling are all over the map. Literally. Nevada is 6.75 %, New Jersey is 8.5% for land based, and up to 14.25% for racetrack based online, Mississippi is 12%, West Virginia is 10%, Delaware and Rhode Island are trickier to figure out because they’re Revenue Sharing models but appear to be 50 and 51%, and Pennsylvania is at 36%, plus very high licensing fees ($10 million).
Everyone thought that if the tax rate was too high on Sports Betting, that the Bookies would have an advantage, and cut into legal gambling. I believe that the Jury is still out on this, and that it’s too early to tell.
The next question in determining tax rates is the question of why you’re having the Sports Betting. In Nevada, where they have a very low tax rate, it seems that the main reason for Sports Betting is to attract people to their casinos and hotels, generating other tax dollars and jobs. In Pennsylvania, the reason appears to be primarily about generating tax dollars. Both are valid, but very different reasons. Understanding this dichotomy, it appears that it may make sense to have different, higher rates for online sports betting, assuming that the online sports betting is set up in a legal manner. I say this because generally online sports betting doesn’t generate the same amount of jobs or economic activity in a state that gambling at bricks and mortar locations generate.
I feel very comfortable in saying that we still don’t know what the effect of higher tax rates will be on promoting illegal gambling, and that states need to look carefully at what their goals are when they set tax rates for sports betting. Is it to maximize gambling tax dollars, or to create jobs, tourism, and overall business taxes?
The United States Supreme Court has issued its ruling in Christie v. NCAA, Case 16-476, stating that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) is unconstitutional. Many people mistakenly think that this has legalized Sports Betting. I expect the ruling to be far less consequential than many think, especially in Florida.
No one knows how much is wagered on illegal Sports Betting in the US today because it’s, well, …illegal. I’ve seen estimates ranging from $107 billion to $300 billion. I think that today’s accurate number is probably somewhere between $150 billion and $200 billion, based on averaging the numbers I’ve seen, even though they’re only guesstimates. Some people assume that all of those wagers and more will immediately go into legal Sports Betting. I disagree.
People enjoy the traditional Office Pool on things like the NCAA Basketball tournament, and other events. Most of those people won’t stop the pools to go wager at a casino. Some people wager on credit with illegal bookies who have “creative” ways of collecting debts. Those people will still go to bookies because of the credit issue. States will tax sports betting (some will do so with heavy taxes), private operators will want to make a profit, and the Sports Leagues have already demanded a cut. I think that the Sports Leagues and states are expecting a larger cut than will prove to be feasible. With all of those takeouts, a bookie should be able to offer better odds.
The biggest issue about the size of the market is whether or not Sports Betting will be able to be offered online. Most boosters say yes, but I don’t know why. I believe that Sports Betting will, at least initially, be limited to bricks and mortar casinos.
Many people think that the famous December 23, 2011 “Christmas Surprise” ruling from the United Stated Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel, authorized internet gambling, including Sports Betting. Incorrect. The OLC ruling was much more limited. It was based on an acknowledged conflict between the prior interpretation of the Wire Act of 1961, and the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). The interpretation of the Wire Act had been that any type of Internet Gambling was illegal, but UIGEA specifically excluded Intrastate online gambling from penalties. OLC issued the Christmas Surprise ruling announcing that their longtime previous interpretation of the Wire Act was incorrect, and that the Wire Act should only apply to Sports Betting, and that only Sports Betting is illegal over the internet. Department of Justice Ruling December 2011 on Internet Gambling. Let me include quotes from that opinion:
“We conclude that interstate transmissions of wire communications that do not relate to a “sporting event or contest,” 18 U.S.C. § 1084(a), fall outside of the reach of the Wire Act. Because the proposed New York and Illinois lottery proposals do not involve wagering on sporting events or contests, the Wire Act does not, in our view, prohibit them.”
“The Criminal Division’s conclusion that the New York and Illinois lottery proposals may be unlawful rests on the premise that the Wire Act prohibits interstate wire transmissions of gambling-related communications that do not involve “any sporting event or contest.” See Crim. Mem. at 3; Crim. Supp. Mem. at 2. As noted above, both Illinois and New York dispute this premise, contending that the Wire Act prohibits only transmissions concerning sports-related wagering… We conclude that the Criminal Division’s premise is incorrect and that the Wire Act prohibits only the transmission of communications related to bets or wagers on sporting events or contests.”
This provision contains two broad clauses. The first bars anyone engaged in the business of betting or wagering from knowingly using a wire communication facility “for the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce of bets or wagers or information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest.” Id. The second bars any such person from knowingly using a wire communication facility to transmit communications that entitle the recipient to “receive money or credit” either “as a result of bets or wagers” or “for information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers.” Id.5”
“Reading the entire subsection, including its second clause, as limited to sports-related betting also makes functional sense of the statute. Cf. Corley v. United States, 129 S. Ct. 1558, 1567 n.5 (2009) (construing the statute as a whole to avoid “the absurd results of a literal reading”). On this reading, all of subsection 1084(a)’s prohibitions serve the same end, forbidding wagering, information, and winnings transmissions of the same scope: No person may send a wire communication that places a bet on a sporting event or entitles the sender to receive money or credit as a result of a sports-related bet, and no person may send a wire communication that shares information assisting in the placing of a sports-related bet or entitles the sender to money or credit for sharing information that assisted in the placing of a sports-related bet.”
Based on the DOJ opinion, a consensus has emerged among serious attorneys that the Wire Act prohibits interstate internet gambling, but permits intra-state internet gambling if authorized by the legislature of that state. It is not clear if interstate compacts are permitted. Information on shared pari-mutuel pools through the internet, although apparently otherwise prohibited by the Wire Act, are expressly permitted through the later Interstate Horse Racing Act.
It currently appears to me that the clear wording of the Wire Act and the December 2011 DOJ memo both, at a minimum, continue to prohibit internet wagering on sports betting. It is not clear to me at this time if even sports betting at local brick and mortar casinos in states that authorize sports betting would be permitted if that wagering is part of interstate pools. Remember that the Wire Act prohibits not only wagering on sport events, but also prohibits “ information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers.”
Finally, the prospects are even worse in Florida. Florida is unlikely to have an opportunity to have a Special Session of the Legislature prior to the elections. There will be a referendum on the November ballot pertaining to voter control of gambling that may or may not impact sports betting. It is also certainly possible that competition between the different gambling industries in Florida, and opposition from the same forces that are pushing the anti-gambling referendum (such as Disney) may result in an inability of Florida to pass any sports betting legislation.