Billions of dollars wagered on Super Bowl – but none of it legally in Alabama

Path to legalized gambling blocked by difficulty of satisfying multiple competing interests
Published: Feb. 12, 2023 at 11:20 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - If you attended this year’s Super Bowl, you could have bet on the game – inside the stadium.

That’s the first time ever, as gambling expands across the country.

But none that expected $16 billion was bet legally in Alabama, where sports betting remains illegal, along with most other forms of gambling. That does not mean Alabamians are not wagering on sports, though.

“Right here, on your phone, you can do the betting,” said state Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore), taking his cell phone from his jacket pocket. “You can enter into that participation any time. And that’s not just for the Super Bowl but with any other sports activity.”

Albritton has led the effort to legalize sports betting as part of a comprehensive plan that includes casinos and a lottery. But legislation he has sponsored the past couple years has failed to get through the House. And with comments by new House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter casting doubt about gambling proposals for this year, Albritton said he is not sure if he will try again in the upcoming session.

“We’re at a standoff like we were last year,” he said. “You know, I brought the comprehensive bill and (state Rep.) Chip Brown dropped the lottery in the House. And neither one of them passed. Everybody was waiting for somebody else to take the first step.”

Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile), the No. 2 Republican in the House, told FOX10 News that there is a big question of whether gambling legislation has any better chance than past proposals of getting the supermajority necessary to pass a constitutional amendment.

“It will be introduced,” he said. “The question is whether there are 63 affirmative votes.”

Brown, a Republican from Mobile, he is trying to assess whether a new lottery bill would have better odds.

“I’m still looking at the issue … just seeing where we are,” he said. “I want the people to have an opportunity to vote on it.”

Competing interests have blocked past bills

Pringle said it has been hard finding consensus among multiple competing interests when it comes to gambling. On the one hand, he said, existing electronic bingo operations operating under local constitutional amendments – and the legislators who represent those areas – have opposed any legislation that would cut them out or otherwise diminish their business. The dog tracks, which have lobbied for slot machines and other gaming, represent another interest.

Then there is the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which has a majority interest in Mobile Greyhound Park in Theodore and runs three casinos in the state. The tribe has fought to ensure that any gambling expansion includes a compact with the state that allows it to expand offerings in its casinos. Pringle said that, in turn, makes some lawmakers nervous that expanded gambling in Creek casinos will draw more gambling money that will be shielded from state taxes.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” he said. “It’s not as straightforward as people think”

The Creek-owned Wind Creek Hospitality told FOX10 News that it continues to support legislation that includes various forms of gambling.

“Wind Creek Hospitality has always supported a comprehensive gaming bill which would include table games, sports betting, and lottery,” the company said in a statement.

Although the Senate passed a comprehensive gambling bill last year and the House debated narrower legislation that focused on a lottery, Pringle said the House does not have a preferred approach. What matters, he said, are details like how gambling would be regulated, what rules would govern operators and how tax revenue would be spent.

“Once you let that cat out of the bag, there’s no way to put it back,” he said. “So you better get it right from the start.”

Sports betting could bring millions to Alabama

A study group appointed a few years ago by Gov. Kay Ivey produced an 876-page report at the end of 2020 the offered a range of estimates pegging state revenue from sports betting anywhere from $6 million to $32 million a year. The report’s own estimate was $10 million.

An Oxford Economics study estimated more than a million Alabama residents illegally bet some $2.3 billion a year on sports.

“Alabama has always had one of the highest per capita sports betting, and that’s been shown in study after study,” said former Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, who served on the state’s gambling study group.

Cochran said all that gambling currently goes untaxed and unregulated.

“The state, in my opinion, is missing the ball – I mean, just missing it, because there’s plenty of sports gambling going on,” he said. “There’s plenty of gambling going on.”

Cochran said state-sanctioned gambling also would protect consumers who now often are at the whims of black-market operators.

“Somebody gets ripped off, there’s no enforcement on to go file a complaint with,” he said. “And it happens to a lot of people where they may hit a payoff, and then the person running it refuses to pay it. And there’s nothing we can do, because we can’t enforce an illegal act to make somebody pay somebody money for something that they’ve done illegally.”

On the streets of Mobile, people have a range of opinions on the topic. Stephen Smoak said he has placed legal sports bets at Mississippi casinos and would spend that money in Alabama if he could.

“Going to the casinos in Biloxi and stuff, it’s a big deal over there, and it generates a lot of revenue,” he said.

Judy Lemon, meanwhile, has the opportunity opinion.

“I think it should be illegal. … I don’t agree with it,” she said.

The ‘fentanyl’ of gambling?

Gambling generally has polled well, but opponents argue those surveys should not be trusted.

“Any polls that you’ve seen are driven by the gambling interests, or those who have a financial interest in it,” said Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling.

Bernal pointed to the results of a ballot initiative in California in 2020, where voters handily defeated a proposal to allow online sports betting despite millions of dollars spent by betting companies to promote it and early indications of public support.

Bernal said it always has been legal for one person to make a bet on the Super Bowl with another person. But he said allowing giant corporations to profit off of gambling is corrupting and encourages addiction.

“It’s driven by greed, and it’s driven by politicians from both political parties who lust for more political power. … “It’s a form of consumer financial fraud,” he said. “It’s a big con.”

Bernal rejected the argument that legalizing gambling allows the state to exert some control over an activity that already is occurring.

“That’s a perfect example of losing a dime so you can save a penny,” he said.

Gambling operators get 40 percent to 60 percent of their profit form addicted gamblers, Bernal said.

“This is gambling’s version of fentanyl,” he said.

Even though political realities may keep Albritton from sponsoring another bill, he said the issue remains urgent.

“Time is not on our side,” he said. “Every day we wait, this industry continues to grow, develop and change. And until the state gains control of it, takes control of it, it’s going to continue to grow and fester. … We can’t deal with it. We can’t regulate it. We can’t control it. We can’t tax it.”


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