Tilman Fertitta: Working Sports Bets No Slam Dunk

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Associated Press
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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Tilman Fertitta has looked at sports betting from both sides now: as the owner of a professional basketball team, as well as the owner of casinos that take bets on the sport (just not on his own team).

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But far from reaping a bonanza from working both sides of the street, Fertitta claims the dual role has actually hurt his business.

Fertitta owns the Golden Nugget casinos in New Jersey, Nevada, Mississippi and Louisiana.

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Until last Friday, a New Jersey law treated his Atlantic City casino more harshly than other jurisdictions that allowed sports betting. In other states, Fertitta's casinos could take bets on basketball games as long as they did not involve the Houston Rockets, which he also owns.

But New Jersey had banned the casino from taking any NBA bets at all, regardless of whether the Rockets were involved, a ban that lasted a year and a half. A bill signed last week by New Jersey's Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, allowed the Golden Nugget to take bets on NBA games that don't involve the Rockets.

The initial ban on all NBA bets in New Jersey "was a horrible setback," Fertitta told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday.

"There's such crossover in time periods between basketball and football seasons that when somebody wants to come to our sports book, and they're sitting there and they want to bet on a basketball game, they can't do it," he said. "It made us just kind of hide in a shell ourselves and not really do major marketing because we just didn't think it was going to be worth it."

Now, with the playing field more normalized, the Golden Nugget has some catching up to do with Atlantic City's other sports books. Eight of the nine casinos have one. Through the end of August this year, it has earned $983,960 from sports betting, ranking it 6th out of Atlantic City's eight sports books.

But in terms of overall gambling revenue, including in-person casino winnings and those from its state-leading internet business, the Golden Nugget is in 2nd place with over $246 million in that same time frame, trailing only the Borgata.

The Texas billionaire this week is promoting his new book "Shut Up and Listen," in which he shares business philosophies including, "know what you know, and know what you don't know."

Daniel Wallach, a Florida attorney and expert on sports law, said keeping Fertitta from taking bets on his own team "is a reasonable restriction. But when you block betting on the entire NBA, that was a disproportionate response that he said contributed to the Golden Nugget's sports betting performance.

Fertitta's ownership of the Rockets carries benefits that transcend profit-and-loss statements, according to David Schwartz, a gambling expert with the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

"Owning an NBA team carries a level of prestige with it that probably enriches Mr. Fertitta much more than an incremental increase in sports betting income, which is itself a small part of gaming revenue, which in turn is a small part of his overall business portfolio," he said.

Fertitta has felt the push-and-pull of an issue that initially roiled the sports betting market: whether gambling companies should be forced to pay leagues and teams part of the money they make from sports betting. Thus far, none of the four major professional sports leagues has succeed in reaping what were initially called "integrity fees" that would help the leagues ensure that the games are above board. Instead, some have turned to the free market to make individual sponsorship or affiliation deals with teams as an alternate way to get cut in on the action.

"I see the NBA's side of it, because it's content, and I see the casinos' side of it, that they don't feel like they should have to be paying for it," Fertitta said. "It's kind of like streaming music, you know? The artist wants some of it and other people say they don't deserve any of it. I don't think it'll ever be mandatory; I think it will be more partnership-based."

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