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Sports betting now legal in Mississippi casinos

legal sports betting This is a "colorized" postcard showing the interior of the Paddock Club in Biloxi in about 1951. It offered craps, roulette, slot machines and a bookie, who took bets on college and professional sports, horse racing, and political races. Of course, it served liquor illegally. It was investigated by U. S. Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN) and his committee and was put off-limits to Keesler Air Force Base personnel for a while. The Mississippi Supreme Court put the Paddock under a restraining order in 1952, but it continued operating in defiance of the order. In April 1953, a couple claimed to have lost $5,000 gambling at the Paddock Club, and complained to Mississippi Governor Hugh White. Apparently their connections were good, and the club closed, August 4, 1953. However, it opened a short time later as the Five O'clock Club.

Last week Mississippi became only the fourth state in the country to allow legalized betting on both amateur and professional sports in its casinos. Only Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware were faster than Mississippi.

It is rare that the Mississippi State Legislature is ahead of the rest of the country in passing any type of legislation. But thanks to aggressive lobbying by the state’s casinos, the state salons quietly passed legislation in 2017 making sports betting legal in Mississippi. It was, of course, then still forbidden by a federal law, the “Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992” (PASPA1992). However, the shrewd folks in the gambling industry advised Mississippi legislative leaders that a lawsuit was making its way through the courts that would, if successful, strike down the quarter-century-old federal statute that sought to limit the influence of gambling interests on amateur and professional sports.

The Mississippi legislative leadership took the hint from their friends in the “gaming” industry. Sure enough, earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down PASPA1992. The Mississippi Gaming Commission (MGC) quickly published 21 pages of rules specifying how sports betting would be regulated in the state.

On Wednesday, August 1, 2018, casinos in Tunica and on the Gulf Coast officially became bookies, and took their first bets on amateur and professional sporting events. It may not be relevant, but it was exactly 26 years to the day from the opening of the state’s first legal casino. The Isle of Capri opened in Biloxi on August 1, 1992.

Without arguing for or against legalized gambling, it is hard to ignore the irony that the state considered the gold buckle of the Bible Belt continues to lead the way in what some Southern pulpits consider “legalized sin.” The long history of unlawful gambling in Mississippi is too long to recite here. From the illegal Gulf Coast casinos that flourished in spite of federal and state law, to the “Dixie Mafia’ that operated throughout the region, to the large book making operations that operated rather openly into the 1980s, it is a long and colorful story.

Not everyone is thrilled about the State of Mississippi going into the sport betting business.

Mississippi, so far is, the only state in the 10-state footprint of the Southeastern Conference to legalize sports wagering.

SEC Commissioner, Greg Sankey, speaking in Atlanta about three weeks ago, acknowledged that, “Gambling activity around sports is not new, and that includes gambling activity around collegiate sports.” Point shaving has been behind many of the historic scandals of college sports, such as the 1985 case involving five Tulane basketball players. “Are there strange things that might happen around the (betting) line?” Sankey asked rhetorically. He said that discussion of whether SEC teams would now start releasing weekly information about injuries is “certainly a topic of conversation.”

The MGC regulations say that sports bets at Mississippi casinos can only be placed when the sports gambler is on casino premises. Yet, although details are not yet clear, gambling interests such as Boyd Gaming and William Hill have already discussed cell phone applications for sports betting. How strict enforcement of the “on premise” rule would be done when cell phones are used to place bets is not yet known.

Will the traditional illegal bookies, who operate with telephones, be forced out of business by Mississippi’s legal sports betting in casinos? There’s the fact that casinos must withhold and turn over to the IRS 25% of any winnings over $5,000, a large bite that obviously does not apply when illegal bookies pay off those who have placed successful wagers.

Mississippi collects a twelve percent (12%) tax on gross casino revenues. In June, 2018, the state collected $21-million on gross casino revenues of $172.7-million. Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, has estimated that sports betting will generate an additional $75-million annually in gross revenues. This works out to $9-million for the state coffers. That sounds good, but it’s kind of puny if you believe those who say that public education alone has been underfunded by $1.5-billion over the last ten years in Mississippi.

The Action Network, a gambling information website, says that Mississippi will be the closest place for legal sports’ bets for the residents of 22 of America’s 50 largest cities. Maybe Godfrey’s estimate is conservative.

Is legalized sports betting good or bad for Mississippi, or will it make any real difference at all?

— JWS

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