HBPA Convention: Panelists Say Racing Must Prepare For, Embrace Sports Betting

by | 03.15.2018 | 1:36pm
The sports-betting panel, from left to right: NTRA president and CEO Alex Waldrop; William Hill US CEO Joe Asher; industry consultant Dr. Jennifer Durenberger; and moderator Michele Fischer, vice president of sales and business development for Sportech Racing and Digital (credit: Denis Blake/National HBPA)

To appreciate how public opinion on sports betting has changed in recent years, consider that the National Football League went from banning Las Vegas commercials on the Super Bowl broadcast to relocating a team there.

While the NFL still opposes sports betting, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball now favor legalizing wagering on sporting events and are lobbying various states to receive a piece of the revenue. Speaking at the Wednesday panel on sports betting that kicked off the National HBPA convention, moderator Michele Fischer said the American Gaming Association estimates that $150 billion is bet on sports by Americans each year, most of that through offshore bookmakers.

The panelists' message was that horsemen and racetracks should be acting now to prepare for the advent of sports betting in America. But just because racetracks understand parimutuel wagering, taking bets at fixed odds on sports requires completely different expertise.

The annual convention of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association features three days of sessions on issues and developments facing horse racing, wrapping up Saturday morning with a meeting of the National HBPA board at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel in the famed French Quarter. 

The United States Supreme Court is expected to rule this spring on New Jersey's challenge to the constitutionality of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which for the last quarter-century effectively has made sports betting illegal except in Nevada and a few other stakes.

“In 2012, the idea of sports wagering throughout the United States was just a long shot,” said Fischer, who is vice president of sales and business development for Sportech Racing and Digital. “The sports leagues sued the state of New Jersey to block sports wagering in Atlantic City casinos and the state's racetracks. They called it a clear violation of the federal ban on state-sponsored sports betting and threatened their integrity…. Now we wait for the United States Supreme Court to potentially strike down the 25-year-old statute. During the six-year battle the momentum has changed. We've got 18 states and three governors now supporting the New Jersey case… There are close to two dozen states considering bills to legalize sports betting.”

Joe Asher, chief executive officer of William Hill US, urged racing to follow the lead of Monmouth Park in pushing to legalize betting on sports. Monmouth is leased by the horsemen, who have partnered with William Hill on the sports-betting initiative. 

“Until Congress gets involved, it's going to be a state issue,” Asher said. “And among the most critical decisions at the state level is who gets the license, who gets the right to offer the product. Certainly under the old legislation in New Jersey and one would think under the new legislation, the racetracks will get that right. That may not be the case in all states. Clearly, in my mind, the No. 1 thing is to be involved in the legislative process in trying to get some form of either getting the licenses or some entree into it.”

Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, offered another top priority.  

“The No. 1 thing you should do is be on the phone with a William Hill or somebody else who does know this business. Because this is not our business,” Waldrop said. “It's vastly more complicated and risky than parimutuel horse racing. You should not go down this road thinking this is just another case where you're going to divvy up purse money. If you're not well-advised, you could be left behind.”

Industry consultant Dr. Jennifer Durenberger said that while the push for sports betting has similarities to racetracks' pursuit of expanded gaming, “it's happening at warp speed.”

“… If the agency that regulates horse racing in your state will have oversight, or potentially merging with one that will, your existing, long-standing relationships with your regulatory body and your legislature are going to be key here. Relationships are critical.

“… I caution you to not make this an us vs. them game, which I think in horse racing we have a history of doing. I think the potential benefits to horse racing are going to be via a cooperative effort…. Two things that are going to be critical going forward that sports betting shares with horse racing is betting integrity monitoring and anti-doping. Those are things we have a long-standing tradition of regulating on a state by state basis and we have a lot to offer in our experience with that.” 

Durenberger said horse racing brings something else to the table that resonates with lawmakers.

“You are thousands of small-business owners, and you have the privilege and the blessing to work in an industry that has economic impact for your states in very large numbers,” she said. “In my state of New York, it's over $4 billion — with a 'b.' Even in small states, it's tens of millions of dollars. Your small businesses sustain green space. You have all of the tax base, all the ancillary things that go into the agribusiness. That economic-impact argument is still very, very relevant. …. Your industry supports the rural economy, as opposed to a handful of franchise owners and leagues.” 

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