ATLANTIC CITY - Key South Jersey lawmakers held court here Wednesday at the Irish Pub to discuss the hypothetical: What if New Jersey had sports betting? How much revenue would the NCAA March Madness Tournament generate for Atlantic City?
"It would bring people here and fill rooms and restaurants during the offseason and create jobs," said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) at the iconic bar just off the Boardwalk at St. James Place. "They have it in Vegas and the rooms are overbooked."
Sweeney, seated in front of framed art, was joined by State Sen. Jim Whelan, new Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo. They chose the day after the three-week March Madness tournament kicked off Tuesday to make their point that the struggling casino resort needs sports betting to sustain itself.
"This place would be filled right now," Sweeney said, as the officials assembled right before the lunch hour.
New Jersey's gaming revenue has been substantially cut as nearby states, including Pennsylvania and Maryland, which for decades sent customers here, have opened casinos.
Supporters say wagering on sports can help revive Atlantic City by attracting weekend crowds to the Shore resort beyond the peak summer season. They envision packed casino floors and hotels during Super Bowl weekend and the NCAA basketball tournament.
"We need to create a level playing field," said Whelan, a Democrat and former mayor of Atlantic City. "It's unfair only four states are allowed to have sports betting."
In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia ruled, 2-to-1, to reject New Jersey's attempt to offer wagering on professional and collegiate sports.
The judges ruled that New Jersey's law permitting sports betting violated the 1992 federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which limits the activity to Nevada, Delaware, Montana, and Oregon.
Gov. Christie has vowed to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court - something Sweeney called a "slam dunk" if the high court takes up the case.
"The governor and Legislature would not have invested in attorneys if we didn't think we could win this," he said. "It's a $12 billion a year underground industry. Much of it is done illegally. Let's legalize it."
Stephen Schrier of Blank Rome L.L.P. in Princeton, an expert on gaming law, said "New Jersey has done a good job highlighting the legal issues that show the unfairness of the federal government bestowing a windfall on one or two states. The precedent exists for New Jersey to be successful if the Supreme Court is willing to hear it."
Whelan acknowledged the obvious - that if New Jersey should prevail, other states would also want sports betting.
"I suspect Pennsylvania would love to have sports betting," he said. " . . . It's up to us to market a little better and make sure people make that trip to the Shore."
Virtually every casino on the Vegas Strip has a sports "book" that resembles an elaborate theater. Last March, Las Vegas attracted 3.53 million visitors, its highest ever for that month, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The occupancy rate at Vegas casino hotels for the first weekend of March Madness was nearly 98 percent, while the casinos generated an estimated $100 million in revenue from sports betting.
"March is one of our busiest months of the year for visitation for a variety of reasons and the NCAA tournament is certainly a huge draw," Cathy Tull, senior vice president of marketing for the LVCVA, said in an e-mail.
Christie signed the sports-betting measure into law in 2012 to allow state racetracks and Atlantic City casinos to offer such wagers. After he signed it, the four professional sports leagues - NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL - and the NCAA, sued to block it.
A federal judge struck down the law in March 2013, and the state appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which last fall also decided against New Jersey.
"It's another tool for Atlantic City," said Guardian, the lone Republican seated at the table with Sweeney. Guardian introduced his first city budget to Atlantic City Council last week. It calls for millions of dollars in cuts because of a huge decline in tax revenue, particularly from the casinos. "We need to find a way to get it here."
Sweeney brushed off any notion that his push for sports betting in Atlantic City was to ward off renewed pressure from North Jersey lawmakers who are again calling for hearings to examine the possibility of adding a casino at the Meadowlands.
He said Christie's five-year revival plan for Atlantic City extended to February 2016. The governor has repeatedly said that he opposes any expansion of gambling beyond Atlantic City during that period.
"It's not gonna happen," Sweeney said of legislation to add gaming at the Meadowlands. "I wouldn't move it through the Senate."
A state-run tourism district was created in Atlantic City in late 2011 to dedicate more financial resources to marketing the city and cleaning up the Boardwalk with hopes of turning the resort's fading fortunes around.
Sports betting, supporters say, could generate an additional $225 million a year in revenue for the casinos and state racetracks.