Sports Betting Will Complete the Gambling Revolution

Judging the outcome of this week's SCOTUS opinion allowing states to legalize sports gambling.


We think of revolutions as sudden, spectacular events, much like earthquakes or erupting volcanoes that transform the landscape overnight. But sometimes they occur so slowly and quietly that it's possible to overlook how much change they bring about.

Over the past generation, the United States has undergone a gambling revolution. A pastime once seen as the sordid province of mobsters, grifters, and wastrels has become an all-American form of fun.

Last year, some 81 million people visited casinos—more than the number who attended Major League Baseball games. About half of American adults say they've bought lottery tickets in the past 12 months. Nearly 60 million people in the U.S. and Canada take part in fantasy sports leagues, which often involve money. Gambling is a diversion that effortlessly soars over categories of age, gender, income, race, and political party.

Religious objections are not necessarily dispositive. The joke in Utah is: "Catholics don't recognize birth control, Jews don't recognize Jesus, and Mormons don't recognize each other in Nevada."

Evangelical Christians view gambling as an affront to the 10th commandment—"You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his." But one of the nation's largest gambling meccas is Biloxi, Mississippi, deep in the Bible Belt. Years ago, former Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Clarke Reed explained, "The attitude is it's really bad but I'm really enjoying it."

The enjoyment endures, and the guilt has been too mild to reverse the growing popularity of various types of wagering. With Monday's Supreme Court decision striking down a federal law that prohibited states from acting to legalize sports betting, the gambling revolution looks close to completion.

The change may not even be apparent to younger Americans, who grew up in a country where casinos, lotteries, and racetracks are about as unusual as a Walmart Supercenter. These people may not realize that until 1978, anyone with an urge to patronize a casino had to go to Nevada. In the 1960s, only New Hampshire and New York had state lotteries.

Today, there are casinos (commercial, tribal, or both) in 40 states. Lotteries are offered in 44 states and the District of Columbia. We have gone from a strong presumption against legal gambling to a strong presumption in favor of it.

The Supreme Court decision opens the way for states to allow something that has been popular in many places but legal only in Nevada—wagering on actual athletic contests. If this activity were not popular, newspapers and ESPN wouldn't offer betting lines on a raft of professional and college games every day.

This titanic shift didn't occur because Americans abruptly shed their inhibitions. It occurred because states experimented with legal gambling and found the results agreeable, or at least tolerable. Each new venture provided more information—and the more information the public had the more comfortable it became letting people wager with the blessing of the law.

The opponents of legal gambling advised the Supreme Court that if it allowed states to make their own decisions on sports betting, rivers would run red and plagues of locusts would descend upon us. A group of organizations led by Stop Predatory Gambling filed a brief warning that legal sports wagering would "exploit the financially desperate, exacerbate crime, cultivate addiction" and impose "enormous social costs."

But if this were a poker game, these groups would have to fold. Harvard Medical School researchers Howard Shaffer and Ryan Martin have found that despite the explosion of legal gambling options since the 1970s, the incidence of pathological gambling in the U.S. populace has stayed the same—below 1 percent.

The national proliferation of gambling establishments has been accompanied by a sharp decline in the national rates of violent crime and property crime. In 1999, a government-funded commission said the evidence indicated that "communities with casinos are just as safe as communities that do not have casinos." If casinos begin offering action on NFL or NBA games, that's not likely to change.

Legal gambling is not a magic formula for economic prosperity or fiscal health. Nor is it an instrument to destroy communities. It's just another business that provides consumers with something they want at a price they are willing to pay.

Every claim made by opponents of sports betting has been made before about other types of gambling. By now, we know they're bluffing.