New Jersey kicks off sports betting after overturning ‘unlawful and unfair federal law’

OCEANPORT, N.J. — Sports betting officially began in New Jersey on Thursday, some seven years after voters here authorized the activity and touched off a multimillion-dollar legal battle that ended last month at the U.S. Supreme Court.

As states across the country race to enact laws allowing athletic wagering following the high court’s ruling, which struck down a federal ban on state-sanctioned sports betting, New Jersey kicked off its sports betting operations at the Monmouth Park Racetrack near the Jersey Shore.

“There’s an old adage that you bet with your head, not your heart. So for the past seven years our heads and hearts were in alignment as we fought to overturn an unlawful and unfair federal law,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a press conference at Monmouth Park, surrounded by hundreds of patrons waiting to place their bets.

“We knew in our heads we were right, and knew in our hearts we would win,” he said.

Moments later, the former Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. ambassador to Germany — who lives in a $10 million mansion on the Navesink River — turned around, walked up to an attendant from sportsbook William Hill and placed the first legal wagers in the state’s history: $20 on Germany to win the World Cup and $20 on the New Jersey Devils to win the Stanley Cup next year.

“The first of millions to come,” Murphy said as he turned to face dozens of cameras, hoisting his two tickets up for all to see.

Within half an hour, betting was up and running at Borgata, an Atlantic City casino where Murphy headed next. Some of the other casinos in Atlantic City are expected to launch their own sportsbooks within coming weeks or months, as are other horse tracks. Online wagering is also in the works.

New Jersey is the second state to launch sports betting following the Supreme Court’s ruling, with Delaware taking the first bets earlier this month.

The start of betting comes just three days after Murphy signed into law a bill allowing such betting and a week after both houses of the state Legislature passed it. It’s the state’s third try, after both previous attempts led to challenges by the NCAA and professional sports leagues.

Voters approved an amendment to the state constitution in a 2011 referendum and the Legislature passed authorizing legislation the next year. Former Gov. Chris Christie, who signed that law, predicted a fight, taunting at the time, "if someone wants to stop us, then let them try to stop us."

In response, the NCAA — joined by the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB — sued the state, claiming that betting would “irreparably harm” sports in America. They argued, successfully, that the state was in violation of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which prohibits most states from legalizing and regulating sports betting.

After New Jersey lost that case, with the Supreme Court declining to hear a challenge, Christie and lawmakers saw an opening to try again. They repealed an old state statute that banned sports betting at casinos and race tracks, leaving in place only some broad limits on the activity.

While a federal appeals court ruled the run-around failed to circumvent the law, the move won New Jersey an audience before the nation’s highest court. The justices heard arguments in December. In May, the court said the federal ban clearly violated the Constitution: “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own.”

It’s a fight many legal experts doubted New Jersey would ever win. Christie didn’t show on Thursday, missing his chance to bask in the victory. But former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat who was the leading champion of the issue, stood by and smiled as Murphy opened up wagering. He let out a “boo” during his own speech, a slur he said was meant for the NFL.

“We kept fighting and fighting for years,” Lesniak said in an interview. “No legal expert — so-called legal expert — gave me a chance. And we’re here, and that chance came through.”

New Jersey’s new law requires bettors to be at least 21 years old and prohibits betting on high school events. It also prohibits betting on collegiate athletic events that take place in New Jersey, and on any sports event that includes a New Jersey college.

The law imposes an 8.5 percent gross revenue tax on betting at casinos and tracks, while online gaming revenue would be subject to a 13 percent tax — a structure meant to motivate players to visit brick-and-mortar establishments. There’s also an additional 1.25 percent tax that goes to host municipalities and counties where a race track is located, or to the "Meet AC" program that promotes tourism in the Atlantic City area.

Lawmakers said they were happy where they landed. The Murphy administration expects to make at least $13 billion in state revenue in the next year from sports betting, but others believe more will arrive.

“It’s a good day because it’s another economic uplifting even,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said after placing $25 bets on the Yankees and Mets to win tonight. “It will get more people out to Monmouth Racetrack, to the casinos — they’ll have fun. The economy at-large gets lifted. And of course we’ll get some economic revenue — stuff that we need.”

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