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Legalizing Sports Betting: A Common-Sense Move or a Boon for Gambling Interests In N.H.?

It’s now legal for all states to allow sports betting, after a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and it looks as though New Hampshire is likely to go this route.     

The N.H. House voted 269 – 82 last month to allow sports gambling on mobile devices and at up to 10 retail locations.  HB 480 has its next hearing in the state Senate on April 24.  

Opponents worry about encouraging gambling addiction.  For supporters, legalizing sports betting means bringing a practice that’s already happening out of the shadows  -- where criminal elements operate -- into the regulatory realm.  

“If that offshore company chooses not to pay you, you have no protections; there's nothing you can do to fix that part,” said Rep. Tim Lang, Republican from Sanborton, on The Exchange. Lang is lead sponsor of HB480. (You can hear the Exchange conversation here.)

Rep. Jess Edwards, Republican of Auburn, opposed the bill.  He said he’s concerned about worsening the state’s already substantial addiction problem and further straining the state's mental health workforce.  “The nuance here is that once you legalize it you normalize it," he said.  "I think you open up the behavior to a new segment of society.”

For Edwards, in-game betting, which is allowed under the bill, is especially worrisome. This allows people to bet on individual plays, rather than on just who wins or loses a game.

“For example, you can bet online on whether or not someone will miss the free-throw, and I think the tempo of being able to bet on line is going to be a naturally addictive behavior,” he said.  

Representative  Lang  says he crafted the bill to minimize potential problems, allowing  for public input –  voters must first approve any sports betting operation proposed for their town.

Also, he said, HB480 includes a “Council for Responsible Gaming” that addresses addiction issues, requiring agents to post information about potentially addictive behavior. In addition, only cash/debit-card bets are allowed, to help prevent accumulation of credit-card debt.  The state's Lottery Commission would oversee sports betting. 

What was behind the sports-betting ban in the first place?

Sport leagues, including the NCAA, NFL, NBA,NHL, and Major League Baseball had long stood by the ban, concerned about the integrity of their games – and their players.   (Read ESPN’s history of sports betting in the U.S., including legislation, court battles, and scandals involving players who were paid to manipulate games.) 

As for concerns that the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision will open the floodgates to gambling, Michael McCann, of UNH Law, said he’s not convinced that’s happened -- or is likely to happen.  “I don’t know if it’s going to radically affect, or make people more likely to bet on sports; it could just be done in a more lawful way,” said McCann, who is director of the UNH Laws Sports and Entertainment Law Institute and co-director of the UNH Law Sports Wagering and Integrity Certificate Program.

Revenues from sports betting have so far come in under estimates.

According to an Associated Press analysis, in four of the six states where sports gambling started last year, tax revenue has fallen far short of estimates. 

Rep. Lang says generating revenue for New Hampshire was not his main motivation: "I didn’t see this as a way of creating a huge amount of revenue for the state. I wanted to make sure that we regulate it and make sure that the people that are profiting from this are paying for that regulation, so it doesn’t impact New Hampshire taxpayers. Secondly,  that if there is any additional revenue stream...all of that goes to our education."

As for revenue estimates, he says: "Our conservative estimate in the first year was about $1.7 million and on the top end is around $10 million. So that's a good number. I felt that we don't want to open it up and make it an unregulated market. We need to control who's involved and make sure they're financially feasible -- able to pay back their bets. And so I felt it was important to add some sort of revenue share there that allows the people who are going to profit from it, to pay for the regulation of it."

But Rep. Edwards is not convinced the trade off is worth it. The bill calls for hiring ten staff, for instance, to oversee the program. 

"As a result of the bill, we're going to grow the size of New Hampshire government, and we're going to start spending more money in the bill for addiction counseling… We're talking about legalizing marijuana; we're talking about legalizing sports betting. We're introducing a lot of addictive behaviors. Albeit they may exist in a black market, but we're choosing to bring them front and center in our society, which is likely to increase addiction rates at the same time."

When it comes to revenues associated with sports betting, McCann says:  "Sports betting isn’t as prevalent as some people anticipate.  Gambling in general can generate considerable rveveue, but betting on sports isn’t done in such a way that it’s a massive practice. No practice is a panacea. The idea that sports betting is going to provide tons of money to any state, I don’t think that’s the anticipation -- or, if it is, it’s not a realistic one. I think it’s really about trying to convert an existing process and turning it into one that is lawful and relatively transparent and regulated."

Small-scale sports betting is just the beginning, warns anti-gambling activist. 

Les Bernal, former highschool and college basketball coach, and national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, said powerful financial interests are behind the push for sports betting.  

"This isn’t being done to benefit athletes, or everyday citizens, it’s being done to benefit very powerful financial interests -- powerful corporate gambling interests at the expense of everybody else," Bernal says.

"For countries that have legalized gambling, kids are growing up in these countries thinking that gambling and sports go hand-in-hand," he said.  And corruption has been a big problem, he said.  "Whether its tennis or soccer, or other sports in Europe, there are scores and scores of examples of game fixing, match fixing that’s occurring," he said. 
"The role addiction plays in the business model of sports betting is enormous: Half the profits in the UK are coming from people exhibiting addictive behavior. It’s a form of financial fraud...It's being driven by very powerful financial interests. A full-scale online casino operation is the end game."

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