Featured Article in Gaming.com on sports betting, featuring speech made by Steve Geller at National Conference of Legislators from Gaming States (NCLGS) Conference; That speech is published in full in prior blog post
Below is an article by Ryan Butler. It was the Featured Article on Gaming.com, and was published on July 12, 2019. I have boldfaced the parts where I am quoted or referred to in the article. This article references the remarks which I made at the NCLGS conference on July 12. I published the text of my speech on this blog less than an hour ago, and they appear directly below this article. Please view the speech in my prior blog post.
US Sports Betting Future, Legality Remain Largely Undefined
MINNEAPOLIS — More than a year after the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on sports betting, nine states are taking legal wagers and 30 or more could do so within the next few years. But as more and more states embrace legal wagering, major questions remain about taxation, implementation and even the legal basis for the nascent industry overall.
Speaking at a conference of state lawmakers Friday, a group of gaming lawyers reiterated the myriad legal and regulatory challenges that remain even after the landmark Supreme Court decision opened widespread sports betting outside of Nevada. Questions and court battles over federal and state laws have loomed over the industry since its inception, but the complexities and possible impacts of these interpretations are even less certain than originally believed.
New Jersey led the legal challenge that ultimately resulted in the Supreme Court ruling and was the first state outside Nevada to implement a regulated online market, but even that intrastate array of internet-based offerings may run afoul of federal statute, argued Geller Law Firm’s Steve Geller. The former Florida state Senator and gaming lawyer said he didn’t believe New Jersey law wasn’t in compliance, but said it wouldn’t be hard for an opposing legal view to take shape.
That dichotomy served as a microcosm of the entire debate.
“The short answer as an attorney is I can make a convincing argument for whichever side hired me,” Geller said.
Geller and other speakers at a session during this weekend’s National Council of Legislators from Gaming States (NCLGS) meeting tried to address these questions over legality, but largely acknowledged one of the few definitive in U.S. sports betting was uncertainty.
Legislative Restrictions Remain Unclear
Questions over legality are nothing new to gambling stakeholders, but Friday’s NCLGS meeting only opened up more fronts in the ongoing developments, and challenges, for legal gaming.
Much of the meeting, and debate across the gaming industry, centers on the Wire Act of 1961. Enacted as a means to combat organized crime and legalized decades before the commercial internet was publicly accessible, there has been ongoing debate, and reinterpretations, over its effect on online gaming.
In 2011, the Obama administration answered a question from a state lottery by ruling the Wire Act didn’t apply to online gaming. This helped a handful of states pursue or expand internet lottery offerings, iCasino games and online poker.
That was revised in 2018 by the Trump administration, which ruled the law prohibited all forms of internet gaming in a move that sent shockwaves across the multi-billion dollar industry and threatened to cripple the fledgling U.S. market. The ruling was challenged in court soon after it was issued, and gaming advocates scored a significant victory earlier this year when a New Hampshire court ruled the new interpretation was invalid.
Still the matter remains far from settled, and even the presiding judge in the New Hampshire court believes the case will be challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The fallout from this looming court battle remains the central concern of the industry, and gaming observers at NCLGS and across the country still remain unsure how it will end.
Under either interpretation, the law explicitly prohibits sports betting across state lines, but Geller opened up the possibility that intrastate markets conducted online may still be in violation.
Though New Jersey requires its internet servers for online gaming be located in Atlantic City, and bettors must be within state lines to place a bet, it still could be in violation of the Wire Act’s sports betting provisions against interstate communication. Any information, payment processing or other component inherent in online communication that is transmitted through any out-of-state location (or even a satellite in outer space) could, by technical definition, be in violation.
Geller also said a clause in existing New Jersey sports betting regulations prohibiting bets on in-state college teams could also violate federal statutes. The ban on bets could favor the integrity protections of an in-state team at the expense of an out-of-state team, which Geller said could violate the dormant commerce clause of the Constitution.
The veteran gaming lawyer didn’t say he necessarily agreed with that interpretation, but told attendees this is just one of a myriad of ways a law could be viewed, and how it could impact gaming.
During a question-and-answer portion of the seminar, Kentucky Rep. Adam Koenig asked panelists what to look for when interpreting these laws. A leader in Frankfort for his state’s sports betting expansion efforts, Koenig wanted to prepare for future legalization efforts when the federal laws remain so poorly defined.
The answer, panelists said, lies largely in the federal and state authorities who have the ability to interpret such laws.
Federal Inaction Continues as Lone Constant
If it’s any consolation, the actions – or inactions – toward gaming legislation on the federal level remains one of the few constants in the ongoing gaming debate.
The federal government has taken no significant move on gaming laws since the ban was overturned in May of last year and industry observers, stakeholders and consumers have largely believed that pattern will continue. The panelists during the NCLGS session reaffirmed that, with officials from law offices, sports betting data services platform Sportradar and even representatives from the National Basketball Association all agreeing that no move was likely.
Though a federal law could clarify many of the aforementioned legal question marks, this national-level ambivalence is a welcome development for much of the industry.
National advocacy groups like the American Gaming Association as well as commercial stakeholders and state-level officials have all preferred the current state-by-state approach to gaming legislation. Though it lacks a federal-level baseline that could potentially alleviate many of the concerns facing the industry, these stakeholders largely believe that any national-level action would be even more detrimental than the current hands-off approach.
In an address to NCLGS attendees later in the afternoon Friday, Penn National CEO Tim Wilmott didn’t mince words when asked about federal intervention.
“We believe gaming is a states’ rights issue and we’re going to fight that to the death,” Wilmott said. “Any involvement from the federal government will be something that we’ll put all our energies and resources against.”
Wilmott and other industry leaders don’t appear to have much to worry about. Congressional gridlock has become a punchline for even the nation’s most pressing issues, leaving most observers to believe gaming has little chance of being further regulated by a highly partisan and divided federal legislature.
“I think it would be a waste of time,” Geller said of a push for federal regulation. “The current Congress, I don’t think could pass gas, much less legislation.”
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?
Geller speaks at NCLGS on the potential effect of Sports Betting on Pari-mutuels (summary below) and Webinar for GiGse on Sports betting
Since my last Post, I’ve spoken to the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States (NCLGS) on July 13 in Cleveland, Ohio, on “the potential impact of Sports Betting on Pari-mutuels”. On July 26 I was a panelist on a GiGse webinar entitled “U.S. Sports Betting & Wire Act – addressing key issues and questions for a successful regulation and operation of sports betting roll-out across states.”. It seems that sports betting is the flavor of the day in Gambling seminars. This post will deal with my NCLGS comments. I intend to post soon on my GiGse webinar comments.
At NCLGS, I pointed out that the absolute fiscal impact of sports betting at the Pari-Mutuels is likely to be negligible, but that the opportunity is great. Let me elaborate.
Nobody knows what is the total amount of wagering that currently occurs on sports betting. The most common numbers I’ve seen are between $100 and $300 billion, so let’s assume it’s $200 billion. Much of that is “sticky” meaning it will stay where it is, with illegal bookies and in office pools, etc. This is even more likely to occur if there are high taxes on sports betting. On the other hand, there may be large untapped demand, which would expand if sports betting is legalized. Anyone that pretends to know what the actual number is probably is just making it up…, excuse me, I meant to say is simply doing exact calculations on an inexact number, to come up with an educated projection. In other words, making it up. However, most of that expansion would occur in Internet sports betting, which, as I will explain in my comments on the GiGse webinar, is probably illegal. Since I can make up numbers as well as anyone else, my scientific calculation is that there will be approximately $150 billion in Sports betting. Just guessing.
The takeout (Gross Gaming Revenue, or GGR) on sports betting is generally around 4-7% in Las Vegas casinos. Let’s assume 5%. 5% of $150 billion is $7.5 billion. If states increase the takeout much more than that, too much of the gambling will stay illegal. If states raise tax rates above a certain unknown number (10-20%??), they will make it unprofitable for operators. Let’s just assume that the state tax rate is 12%, the Federal excise tax rate is .25% of the wagering (not the GGR), the sports leagues and individual teams ask for their percentage (either of GGR or wagering), and we see that there’s not a lot left for the operators to make money on. In Nevada, the expenses for running sports gambling before taxes and the other issues I’ve discussed approach 50%. Further assume that Nevada will continue to attract most big rollers for sports wagering, and we can see that there isn’t much left to spread around as profit for individual operators in the rest of the Country.
However, there is some good news for pari-mutuel operators, if they take advantage of it. I believe that at least initially, most states will restrict sports betting to their existing licensed gambling facilities. I think that this will occur because the existing facilities have substantial political clout in their states, because Internet sports wagering may be illegal (because of the Wire Act, which wasn’t thrown out when PASPA was), and because of a desire to at least start in a more conservative fashion. In Las Vegas, we’ve seen that sports betting isn’t that big of a revenue generator for the casinos. The casinos use sports betting to attract customers to their casinos, and they do this well. If pari-mutuels around the country take advantage of this, upgrade their facilities, diversify their gambling base, and use sports betting to attract new customers, then sports betting may indeed be a huge boost to pari-mutuels. I won’t hold my breath.
On May 31, 2018, I spoke at the GigSe conference in Miami on the topic of Sports Betting after the recent Supreme Court ruling invalidating PASPA. My comments reflected the same position that I made in my last blog post, that the Wire Act still appeared to prohibit Sports betting, even from states where such gambling is legal to states where such gambling is legal. During the Question and Answer period, one person asked me if I was familiar with Former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson’s remarks that because PASPA was gone, that meant that Sports Betting among states could be legalized, and therefore the Wire Act would no longer apply. I advised that I had not heard that Olson had made these remarks, but that I’d check.
I cannot find anywhere that Olson has flatly come out and said that the Wire Act doesn’t apply any longer. I have located articles where he has questioned whether the Wire Act still applies. I have reviewed the literature on this, and I have reached several conclusions. These conclusions are my current opinion, are based upon my own knowledge and the opinions that I have read from or discussed with other experts in the field. They are still preliminary, and are subject to change, as I have not researched this area as thoroughly as I would if I was representing a client in this area. With all of those caveats, here is my opinion.
The majority of the opinions from people that I respect seem to range between saying that the Wire Act still applies to saying that the Wire Act may still apply, but that they have some questions. The majority seem to believe that the “safe harbor” section of the Wire Act would permit sharing of information from a state where sports betting is legal to a state where sports betting is legal, although it would not permit the actual betting over the internet, even if sports betting is legal in that state.
I have largely ignored the many articles written by non-lawyers, who appear to believe that if they want it to be legal, it must be legal, or whose major source of information is what they read in a general purpose newspaper. In reading articles, papers, and presentations written by attorneys, the predominant position seems to be “that’s a good question.”, or “The Wire Act currently seems to prohibit it, but it would require litigation or a ruling from the USDOJ to conclusively respond”, or some variation thereof.
Having now reviewed the literature, I slightly amend my prior position, from saying “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” to saying that that “the clear wording of the Wire Act and the December 2011 DOJ memo both, at a minimum, appear to continue to prohibit internet wagering on sports betting but it would require litigation or a ruling from the USDOJ to conclusively respond”.
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.