US Sports Betting: A Complete Guide
For as long as there have been sports, there has been sports betting. From Romans taking bets on chariot racing right through to the modern-day betting visiting their favourite bookmaker site, sports betting has been part and parcel of the human experience for centuries. Betting on horse racing, for example, is thought to date back to the 12th century — and the practice is continuing, nearly a literal millennia later.
However, while sports betting has been part of human life for centuries, the same is not true of one of the biggest countries on earth: the USA.
The History Of Betting In The USA
Betting in US states was not always banned. In fact, there is evidence that the practice crossed the Atlantic along with the first settlers, and was integrated into the new American life along with strange hats and inexplicable shoe buckles. (Seriously, Pilgrims, what was that all about?)
However, by the early 20th century, the mood was changing. It’s fair to say that this period in American history is one that can be defined simply as: “they banned a lot of stuff”. Prohibition is the most famous, failed, example of this, but another ban stuck: a ban on gambling. Initially, bans were initially issued at state level: New York, for example, banned betting of any kind at this point in time, which meant it was technically illegal to wager with a friend on a game of Scrabble. Most states followed suit, with a few notable exceptions: Oregon, Delaware, Montana, and a few others opted to continue running lotteries, but not sports betting; while Nevada — a state renowned for its betting — continued to run sportsbooks at its casinos. In 2017, Nevada reported that over $4 billion had been bet at sportsbooks that year — demonstrating that there was clearly a willingness to engage with the practice among the general public.
So for much of the 20th century, the story of sports betting in the US was a confusing one. Some states allowed it; others outright banned it. However, one thing is for sure: sports betting was happening, just not necessarily legally.
Despite the popularity of sports betting, 1992 saw a permanent change to the betting landscape: The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which effectively prevented states that didn’t permit single-game gambling from implementing it in the future. There was an allowance made for “parlay” betting, which is what we in the UK would call an accumulator — betting on several matches in the same ticket. But if you wanted to place a bet on your football team to win a single match, this became illegal.
It’s important to note that the ban was a federal one; for UK readers, that means a law that was issued by the central Washington government, and applied to all states except for those excluded by existing legislation. The fact that the law was federal in nature would be a huge factor in the eventual defeat of a sports betting ban in the US — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Why Was Sports Betting Banned?
This question is difficult to answer. If you asked 10 people, they would almost certainly provide you with 10 different answers.
So, let’s look at this from a legislative point of view. The overriding push back against sports betting primarily came from popular US sports leagues, and this was the driving factor behind the ban. These leagues — such as the NBA, NFL, and NCAA — claimed that allowing betting would, in some way, damage the integrity of the sport in question.
However, while most leagues continued to oppose the ban officially, there have been signs that individuals within the professional leagues have experienced significant opinion shifts. For example, in July 2017, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said: “We’re in the process of talking to our owners and figuring out where we want to be in the event that there is in fact a significant change coming.”
This “significant change” would take another year to come — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Did The Ban Work?
As America learned with alcohol prohibition, banning something does not necessarily mean it ceases to exist. Sports betting in the United States has been available in one form or another for a very long time, even outside of Nevada. For example, sites based in Nevada could be used by bettors living in states where sports betting was prohibited. This was technically illegal under the Federal Wire Act of 1961, but there are plenty of people online who discuss their activities in this regard.
The simple truth is that, even with a ban in place, illegal sports betting has been a constant feature of American life for a very long time. In 1999, the US Congress commissioned a study, which found that between $80 billion and $380 billion was bet illegally every year — and that’s before online sports betting in the United States was a real force.
So, for a long time, the US was in limbo. Sports betting was legal… sort of, in certain states, and even where it wasn’t legal, sports betting still happened. This led to a confusing experience for American bettors — but in 2018, everything suddenly changed.
So What’s Changed?
You may have seen recent news regarding the changes to betting in the US.
This change is centred about a case in New Jersey, the home of Atlantic City — the East Coast’s answer to Las Vegas. In 2012, New Jersey governor Chris Christie introduced legislation that would permit the same kind of gambling as allowed in Nevada in the Garden State.
In response to this legislation, a number of leagues — the NCAA, NHL, MLB, NFL, and NBA — banded together to sue New Jersey and reintroduce a ban. This case was accepted by the Supreme Court. For the most part, the case was fought on a “state’s rights” issue, which has long been a feature of American politics.
Here’s a quick primer for UK readers who may be unfamiliar with this attribute of American politics. A US citizen living in Florida is subject to two different laws. They are subject to state laws; laws that are made, passed, and upheld in Florida. However, that citizen is also subject to federal law; law that is made in Washington DC, and applies across all 50 states in the union. State laws only apply to the single state, which is why you’ll occasionally find examples of ridiculous laws, such as the state law that demands residents of Arizona obtain a permit prior to feeding garbage to a pig (yes, really).
There has long been a disagreement over federal laws and their powers — in fact, a disagreement over individual state’s rights regarding slavery led to the American Civil War. It’s fair to say that the state’s rights versus federal law is an argument that will long consume American politics, partially due to its absurdity. As an example, a person could live in the Florida a single foot from the border with Georgia, and they could be subject to a law that says they can’t grow oranges in their back garden. However, their Georgian neighbour can grow oranges, as this is not prohibited under Georgian state law. This is a scenario that has been somewhat exaggerated to make the point, but it’s not impossible.
So, the states rights versus federal law issue was the main question before the Supreme Court. On May 14th 2018, the Supreme Court who voted in favour of New Jersey. The main sticking point for the ban was that the law was federal, which the Supreme Court found was unconstitutional, as it forced states to act outside of their own decision-making in regards to betting on sport.
New Jersey’s successful case has led the way for numerous other states to submit plans to allow sports betting within their borders. If you are wondering “where is sports betting legal in the united states?”, then the answer at this point in time is still relatively restricted, but a number of states have brought forth planning to allow single-game betting in future.
The Current State Of Play
As this is a developing issue, the list below is subject to change. However, at the time of writing (the end of August 2018), here’s how things look in terms of the legality of sports betting in the United States:
Legalised sports betting
The following states have sports betting already legalised, and there are no restrictions for single-game betting.
- New Jersey
- Mississippi (notably, the first southern state to legislate in favour of sports betting)
The following states have introduced bills to permit legalised sports betting in their state, though this may still be pending full legislative confirmation. The majority of these bills have been introduced since the Supreme Court’s ruling in May 2018:
- New York
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
The following states have suggested they intend to legalise sports betting, though the bill has yet to be formally passed.
- South Carolina
The remaining states have yet to plan or introduce legislation to legalise sports betting, though this is no guarantee they will not do so in future. We’ll try to come back to this page to keep it as up-to-date as possible.
What Is The Future For Betting In The US?
It seems that the Supreme Court’s decision in 2014 has, to an extent, opened the floodgates. A number of states immediately introduced, or planned to introduce, legislation to legalise sports betting, which suggests a strong feeling that this is the defining moment for the industry in the US. The fact that we are still only a few months from the ruling and there are already double-digit numbers of states who have sought to legalise betting shows an appetite from lawmakers, and it is worth noting the fact that this appetite is shared by the American public.
For many years, the public were generally against sports betting; polls consistently found a majority support for the ban on sports betting. However, over time, this attitude has shifted substantially. In 2017, a poll was published that showed — for the first time — that a majority of the public felt that sports betting should be legal, with a 55% approval rating. This poll was taken when the leagues’ case against New Jersey was already established, so the people answering were well aware that sports betting may well become a reality in the future.
So, New Jersey won, other states have taken the ruling as sign they should introduce their own legislation — what next?
Well, it’s fair to say that this issue is unlikely to be entirely concluded. There may well be future legal challenges and legislation in Congress but, at this point in time, the overall pushback seems to have been mild. This is likely influenced by the change in public attitudes, and the fact that significant figures within the leagues have at least softened their opinion on the subject in recent years. There is always a chance that new federal legislation could be passed to replace the struck-down initial ban, but this seems to be unlikely at this point in time, and would take many years to bear fruit if it were to happen.
So, for the moment, sports betting in the United States is officially A Thing — in some states, anyway, and definitely in more states that it used to be. This means that people who have always wanted to bet on sports will now have options to do so in a safe, legal, and highly-regulated manner.
It’s fair to say that 2018 is entering into a brave new world in terms of sports betting in the US. As more and more states signal their intention to adopt the practice, it looks like the residents of the most powerful country in the world will soon be able to engage in sports betting — just like everyone else.