Atlantic City's hopes of a gaming-industry rebound in 2009 might be about to take another hit, this time from a southwesterly direction.
When Delaware Gov.-elect Jack Markell and a new General Assembly take office next month, the legalization of sports betting is expected to be high on their "to-do" list. State lottery director Wayne Lemons said that with legislative approval, sports betting could be in business by the summer.
This, said one gambling-business analyst, certainly won't make things easier for Atlantic City's 11 casinos, which have been reeling from the double-whammy of a trashed economy and increasing competition from Pennsylvania slots parlors.
However, suggested Joe Weinert, senior vice president of Linwood, N.J.-based Spectrum Gaming Group LLC, the blow probably will be more glancing than fatal.
"It will definitely be a negative for Atlantic City," said Weinert, especially among male customers. Sports betting, he offered, "will give them another excuse to gamble in Delaware."
As a result, he added: "It will be another dent in Atlantic City's armor," but probably not severe enough to make an appreciable difference in the seaside casinos' bottom lines.
That, Weinert said, is because of the nature of what is being proposed for Delaware. Unlike in Nevada, gamblers won't be able to place a bet on a single sporting event.
Instead, he said: "You'll have to place a 'parlay bet' - a minimum of two bets. You can bet the Eagles to win by seven [points], but you also have to bet [on something like] Brian Westbrook rushing for 100 yards."
The Diamond State can consider legalized sports books because in the 1970s it experimented with a sports lottery. That gives it a "grandfather" exemption from the 1992 federal law that prohibits betting on sporting events. The only states with the same status are Nevada, Oregon and Montana.
Federal law-enforcement officials estimate that illegal sports betting is as much as a $300 billion-a-year business.
Delaware, which hopes eventually to legalize table games such as blackjack and craps, is looking to sports betting as a buffer against slot machines in neighboring Maryland, which were legalized by referendum last month. Delaware gaming officials estimate that Maryland's one-armed bandits will siphon $10 million from their state next year, and as much as $70 million in 2010.
Last February, New Jersey's Assembly overwhelmingly approved a bill that would allow a referendum on pro sports betting, but the Senate has yet to take up the measure. If it passed in that house, it probably would face serious federal roadblocks, lacking "grandfather" status.
The impact on Pennsylvania's slot houses probably will be geographical, said Jim Wise, vice president of marketing at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, in Wilkes-Barre.
"It really comes down to where you're located in the commonwealth," Wise said. "I don't think my customers are going to drive 2 1/2 hours to get that wager down on a Sunday afternoon. I don't know if it would impact [Mohegan Sun] as much as it would places closer to Delaware."
By that reasoning, the casino most likely to be affected by Delaware sports betting is Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack, located only a slot ticket's throw from the Delaware line. Vince Dunleavy, the property's general manager, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
In a related development, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission yesterday announced that Atlantic City's November gaming revenues fell 7.8 percent from November 2007. For the first 11 months of the year, the take is down 6.7 percent from the same time period last year. *