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Commentary: Step right up and place your bets — soon

Mike McFeely. 5Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

FARGO—There will be resistance from the usual corners of paragon and virtue, of course, when it comes to legalized sports betting in North Dakota and Minnesota. But it's coming, and that's about the safest wager a person could make.

And sooner rather than later, according to a couple of local legislators.

The U.S. Supreme Court this week paved the way for states to OK betting on sports, heretofore illegal in most states under federal law, by striking down as unconstitutional the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. The 1992 law was meant to shield both pro and college sports from the possibility of gambling-related scandals like point-shaving or throwing games. Sports are all about integrity, you see.

The hypocrisy is gigantic, particularly when it comes to the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, both of which opposed nationwide legal sports betting. The NFL and the NCAA's men's basketball tournament are multi-billion business ventures that enjoy gonzo popularity in no small part because of both legal and illegal gambling. You ever plunk down $10 to fill out brackets for March Madness? Yeah, that's gambling (and probably the only reason you care who won between Florida State and Missouri in the first round this year).

You'll soon be able to plunk down some dollars legally in both North Dakota and Minnesota, according to Fargo Rep. Thomas Beadle and Dilworth Rep. Paul Marquart. Both expect their states to legalize sports betting.

"I think it's going to happen faster than the Sunday liquor sales did," Marquart said Tuesday, May 15, referring to the years-long Minnesota battle that finally ended in 2017. "It's going to be brought forward next session and I think it's going to pass."

One legislator, Pat Garofalo of Farmington, already has a draft bill to legalize sports betting. He plans to introduce it in the waning days of the current session to generate discussion heading into the interim session.

"It's going to be a heavy lift because there's always going to be normal opposition to expanded gambling and those types of things," Marquart said. "But I think in the next year or two it will become law."

It might happen even faster in North Dakota, according to Beadle. After conferring with legislative counsel, Beadle doesn't believe there is any obstacle to Native American casinos offering sports betting as soon as they are ready. The state has a gaming compact with tribes and Beadle said it his understanding is that the Supreme Court ruling does away with restrictions on sports betting.

"It's possible it might become immediately available at some of the tribal casinos," Beadle said. "We might be able to drive to Dakota Magic or Spirit Lake and make a bet on Bison football or Fighting Hawks hockey."

Messages left for representatives of those casinos, located in Hankinson and Devils Lake, were not returned before deadline.

The other quickest path to sports betting in North Dakota is through charitable gaming sites, those big-city pubs and small-town bars that have blackjack and pull tabs. There are hundreds in the state, 42 in Fargo and 20 in West Fargo alone according to the state attorney general's office. Beadle said allowing sports betting at those locations would require a statutory change that could be easily handled by the Legislature.

"I do expect that will come forward in 2019," Beadle said. "There will be pushback against this in the Legislature. Many of the gambling issues we've addressed in the past have barely passed the House, by one or two votes. But I do believe the charitable gaming aspect will happen during the next legislative session and I believe the votes will be there to do that."

If the 2019 Legislature makes sports betting legal, it would become effective Aug. 1 of that year.

To expand sports gambling beyond that, to have stand-alone sports-betting houses, would require a change to the state's constitution. That would need be approved by a statewide vote. The constitution allows only for charitable gaming or for the state to be part of a lottery.

"If sports betting was made available at the tribal casinos or with charitable gaming, I don't know that there would be critical mass to expand it beyond that," Beadle said. "Once you give those people who want a place to bet on sports a little bit, they might find that to be sufficient."

Beadle said sports betting would generate revenue for the state, but not in amounts that would be viewed as a "silver bullet" for budget problems.

The bigger winners might be the organizations that fundraise through charitable gaming sites. The fundraising arm of North Dakota State athletics, Team Makers, has licenses at seven locations in Fargo and West Fargo. Sports betting is said to be a (mostly illegal) $150 billion industry in the United States. Even a small slice of that could go a long way toward funding ever-more expensive Division I sports.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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