LAS VEGAS — Jimmy Vaccaro has seen just about everything in 40 years of taking money behind the counter at sports books in this gambling city.
Until Monday. He had never seen a day like this.
Sports betting is about ready to explode across the nation, thanks to the collective wisdom of the justices on the Supreme Court. Their ruling that states are now free to offer sports betting means it may soon be as easy to bet a $20 parlay in some states as it is to order pizza on the phone.
Almost as important for some, it also wipes away the final stigma on an industry that Vaccaro has made both his occupation and his life.
“People like me have been waiting 35 years for this to happen,” said Vaccaro, who operates the sports book at the South Point hotel. “For a 72-year-old bookmaker it’s special in a very personal way.”
No longer can the Roger Goodells of the world fool anyone with their absurd arguments about the evils of betting. No longer can the NCAA hide behind its archaic fears that college students everywhere will be wagering their scholarship money on Notre Dame plus the points.
Sports betting is now a legitimate industry. And it’s about to go nationwide in a big way.
Imagine, if you can, stopping on the way to the Meadowlands to watch the Jets and putting $20 on them to cover the spread. Better yet, how about sitting in the stands and making bets in real time on your phone?
It’s all coming, and soon. By the time the NFL kicks off next season there easily could be sports betting in a handful of states, maybe more.
That didn’t exactly send bookies out dancing in the streets of Las Vegas to celebrate. There’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of jockeying for position among gambling companies and sports book operators.
Yes, there is money to be made. But who makes it and how the major sports leagues are involved — if at all — will be a contentious battle over the coming months.
“It’s a gigantic step but there are so many more issues still to be handled,” Vaccaro said.
No one is certain just how big sports betting will become. Estimates of the betting market in the United States are mostly just guesses because no one really knows how many people like to bet or how much they will end up wagering, though for perspective Nevada books took in $4.87 billion last year.
One thing that is certain is that if sports betting is regulated like it is in Nevada, it poses no threat to sports leagues or their products.
“Sports betting has always had this dark cloud over it,” said Jay Kornegay, who runs the sports book at the Westgate Las Vegas. “A lot of people associate it with organized crime, but over the last couple of years the climate has really changed dramatically. That dark cloud has been lightened, and could soon go away.”
Monday’s ruling set off a string of reactions from major sports leagues, with both the NBA and NFL saying they would go to Congress to push for a federal law regulating betting. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said for several years betting should be legalized and regulated, but it’s new territory for the NFL, which has been adamant that sports betting threatens the integrity of its games.
Then again, if there’s a profit to be made, the NFL doesn’t want to be left behind. The pro leagues have in recent months been angling for a piece of the profits with a so-called “integrity” tax to protect their sports.
The integrity tax, of course, is little more than an attempt to extort money from bookmakers and bettors alike. There is no integrity problem — and no integrity tax — in sports betting in Nevada, where every dollar is watched closely and every point spread is tracked in casinos across town.
“It’s a tightly run ship in Las Vegas,” Kornegay said. “It’s confusing to me that we haven’t seen more inquiries from other jurisdictions on how to regulate betting. They should understand how the books in Nevada operate.”
Kornegay pointed out — and rightfully so — that sports books aren’t exactly licensed to print money. They operate on small margins — with just a 5.1 percent hold in Nevada last year — and can actually lose money if they get on the wrong side of the action in any particular game.
No one feels sorry for the bookies when that happens, and that won’t change. But almost everything else will in an industry that has succeeded despite the best efforts of the sports leagues to shut it down.
Thanks to the Supreme Court, legal sports betting is coming to a state near you.
And that’s something you can bet on.