Former Presidential Candidate McCain Seeks US Sports Betting Discussion

The slow mainstream push toward an expansion of legalized sports betting in the United States has returned to the headlines, with former GOP presidential nominee John McCain joining the growing list of politicians who want to see Congress visit the federal PASPA prohibition on sports wagering in 46 of 50 US states.

McCain (R-AZ) appeared recently on ESPNRadio’s “Capital Games” to discuss the issue, and to urge Congress to consider new hearings with an eye toward revising or reversing the unpopular federal law.  The ESPNRadio show, hosted by ESPN’s Andy Katz and ABC’s Rick Klein, focuses heavily on sports betting topics, with a hefty nod-and-wink to the fact that most of the show’s listeners are checking in from jurisdictions where sports betting is illegal.


US Senator John McCain thinks Congress should reconsider the illegality of sports wagering in most of the country.

McCain now adds his name to the burgeoning roster of politicians who might change that.  PASPA (The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) was passed in 1992, presumably to prevents illegal wagering on sports, but has little to stem the activity.  An infographic released by the American Gaming Association illustrates that legal sports betting represents only a tiny percentage of the money actually bet on sports in the US, in the range of 3% of all such activity.

An ESPN report published late last week also cites recent Nevada gaming numbers, which declare that formal, legalized sports betting in the state — the only US state where full-fledged sports betting is available — generated $3.9 billion in wagers in 2014.  The AGA’s official estimate of money actually wagered in the US during last calendar year dwarf that, from a minimum of $150 billion to as much as $400 billion.

Today’s Super Bowl represents an even greater extreme.  Long recognized as the single most active day for both legal and illicit sports betting, official estimates of today’s action center around $100 million, while the unofficial wagering market is estimated at $3.8 billion — 38 times as much.

It’s the combination of the cold reality of a lost source of tax revenue and the increasing knowledge that PASPA itself borders on unconstitutionality that have pols such as McCain revisiting the topic.  McCain’s take stands in stark contrast, however, to Arizona’s -other- long-standing US senator, Jon Kyl, who retired in 2013.  Kyl was one of Congress’s foremost opponents of many forms of gambling (including online) and was an important element in the passage of the 2006 UIGEA — a law which has hampered online wagering on sports, poker, and casino games, but has clearly not stopped the activities.

PASPA itself continues to be the target of increasing state-level assaults, from those states who view the activity as a possible tax source themselves.  New Jersey has led that charge, continuing to battle the federal government and the sports leagues themselves in court, but other states are exploring future opportunities as well.  Indiana, for instance, recently saw the introduction of a new measure that would legalize sports betting at licensed facilities in the state — if the current federal PASPA ban is ever overturned.

As McCain told the Capital Games interviewers, regarding the grandfathered protection the current PASPA ban allows for Nevada, he said, “I think you’ve got an excellent point, and that’s why it’s an excellent issue.”

McCain also acknowledged that illegal sports betting will continue, regardless of what bans might exist. “I think that there [are] places for sports gambling in states, where gambling is legal,” he told the ESPNRadio hosts. “We obviously know that there are huge amounts gambled on sporting events, particularly football.”

Though the push toward a nationwide deferment to states’ rights regarding sports betting legalization continues to grow, it may be several more years before the tide turns.  A recent reintroduction of a PASPA-modifying bill by one of New Jersey’s Congressional representatives, Frank LoBiondo, has been referred to committee but has garnered few co-sponsors and is given scant chance of passage.

Eventually, the American pro sports leagues themselves will likely tip the scale.  New NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently made headlines by announcing his tacit support of legalized US sports betting, declaring it “inevitable” in some form.  However, other major organizations have remained adamant in their opposition, particularly the NFL and the pseudo-amateur, college-level NCAA.  Those two organizations are the hardline anti-wagering leagues, but if either they or the NHL or MLB softens their stance, the prospects for a federal PASPA reversal will become very real.

In the meantime, the image game continues.  McCain’s visit to the issue represents nothing more than political reality: The activity is there, and it’s up to US federal and state authorities to figure out how to tax it.


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