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Is Sports Gambling in California's Future?

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Large, curved-screen TVs display various sporting events above a dimly lit bar
A sports betting lounge in Oxon Hill, Maryland, one of the states to legalize sports gambling following a 2018 Supreme Court ruling.  (Shannon Finney/Getty Images)

California isn’t Las Vegas, Reno or Atlantic City, but there are still plenty of places and ways to legally make a bet here: tribal casinos, card clubs, racetracks and, of course, the more than three-decades-old California State Lottery.

But with the exception of horse racing, it’s still illegal to bet on sports and athletic competitions in the state.

That could soon change because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2018 in a case brought by New Jersey that struck down a federal ban on sports betting. The ruling left it up to the states to decide whether or not they wanted to legalize sports wagering.

Since the decision, the floodgates have opened, with more than 30 states legalizing some form of sports betting, most recently New York.

And in states where it’s legal, gambling companies have launched glitzy advertising campaigns to reach potential gamblers, campaigns that feature such celebrities as Ben Affleck, Shaquille O’Neal and Jamie Foxx as brand ambassadors.

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Now, the gambling industry has its attention squarely focused on California. It’s trying to use the state’s ballot initiative process to make sports betting, on both professional and college competitions, legal here next year.

But there are rival factions in the industry, each backing its own legalization proposal. They include tribal casinos and racetracks, card clubs, and such popular fantasy sports sites as FanDuel and DraftKings. The last two say they're ready to spend $100 million on a general campaign to make sports wagering a reality in the Golden State.

One proposal, which has already qualified for the ballot, would require in-person wagering at reservation casinos and racetracks. Other initiatives, like one bankrolled by the sports wagering sites, would legalize mobile betting, letting people place their wagers using their smartphones. In states that have legalized sports gambling, mobile betting has rapidly overtaken on-site wagering.

Industry watchers say they don’t know which proposal will finally prevail, but they have little doubt that it won’t be long until legal sports gambling is a reality in California.

“Oh, sure. It’s not only coming, it’s going to be coming pretty soon,” says I. Nelson Rose, a professor emeritus at Whittier College and an expert on gambling law and public policy.

Rose says California is just too lucrative of a market for the sports gambling industry to ignore.

“The estimate for California is that it could be $20 billion or $30 billion in wagers a year,” says Rose.

To cultivate public and political support for sports betting, all of the gambling interests behind different proposals are promising a tax revenue windfall for California, with the money used to fund social programs.

Recently, the mayors of Oakland, Sacramento, Fresno and Long Beach joined together to support one sports betting initiative that promises to use tax revenue to help the state’s unhoused population. An analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated the measure could add “the mid-hundreds of millions of dollars” to state coffers each year.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia recently joined the mayors of Oakland, Sacramento and Fresno to support a sports betting initiative that dedicates tax revenue to aid California's unhoused population. (Saul Gonzalez/KQED)

“For us, it’s all about homelessness dollars,” says Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia.

“When we heard that this initiative was looking at putting dollars into homelessness, and that cities would get substantial revenue, I think a lot of the mayors were very interested in this,” says Garcia.

But some gambling industry analysts, like Rose, advocate caution.

They say legalized sports betting could also create problems, like fueling gambling addiction. That’s especially a worry if easy-to-use mobile wagering becomes legal in the state.

“Personally, I think that gambling has a lot of risk factors for a lot of people,” says Rose. “And I would like to see it more difficult to make a wager as opposed to it getting easier and easier. I think there was a lot less problems for society when you had to drive across the desert to Las Vegas.”

With no irony, the gambling industry says revenue from California sports betting operations could also be used to fund gambling addiction programs in the state.

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