Delaware Sports Betting to Coincide With Start of NFL Season

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Donald Wittkowski, Press of Atlantic City

Ready, set, hike - and bet.

The National Football League season kicks off Sept. 10. For casino gamblers in Delaware, sports betting may begin on the same day.

Delaware gaming officials said Wednesday they plan to have sports betting ready in time for the NFL season. However, they face possible legal challenges from sports leagues, including the NFL itself.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy declined to say whether the league will file a lawsuit, but made it clear that professional football is adamantly opposed to sports betting in Delaware.

"We don't believe that promoting additional betting on professional or college sports is healthy for the game. It threatens the integrity of the game," McCarthy said.

Ed Sutor, president and chief executive officer of Dover Downs Hotel & Casino, asserted that any legal action to stop sports betting would fail. He noted that the NFL lost a federal court fight in the 1970s, when Delaware briefly experimented with a sports lottery then.

"We fully expect the NFL to challenge us," Sutor said. "They challenged us before and lost, so there's not a lot of concern this time around."

Delaware is preparing to introduce sports betting on professional and college games at its three racetrack casinos - Dover Downs, Delaware Park and Harrington Raceway. Betting, however, would not be allowed on Delaware's college teams or the Wilmington Blue Rocks minor league baseball team.

"We will have the full array of sports betting that they have out in Las Vegas, including major league football, baseball and basketball and the college games," Sutor said.

Delaware is just one of four states, along with Nevada, Montana and Oregon, that were grandfathered under a 1992 federal law that bans sports betting. Those states had some form of sports betting laws at the time or before the federal law was introduced. Delaware was exempted because of its sports lottery in the 1970s.

New Jersey is belatedly trying to win court approval for sports betting in a federal suit that challenges the ban.

"Certainly, it will give Delaware an amenity that no other casinos have east of the Mississippi," said Wayne Lemons, the state's lottery director.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation in May legalizing sports betting and casino table games at the racetrack slot parlors. Delaware's lottery commission soon will approve the hiring of a private contractor to oversee the sports betting system for the state, including the setting of odds.

Lemons has indicated Delaware plans to allow bettors to wager on the outcome of a single game or a parlay of several games. Sutor said the NFL likely would object to single-game wagering, but probably would accept parlay betting because it is considered more of a "game of chance."

Whatever form of sports wagering is ultimately decided, Delaware will certainly have an advantage over the Atlantic City casinos in that type of gambling. Delaware also has approved adding Atlantic City-style table games for its casinos, although they aren't expected to be ready until some time next year.

"Now they have a choice of betting on the slots and horseracing. But by next April, we think they'll be able to bet on the table games," Sutor said of Delaware gamblers.

Analysts believe sports betting and table games will allow Delaware to siphon customers away from the Atlantic City casinos. Sutor, a former Atlantic City gaming executive, said the main benefit for Delaware will be to draw more gamblers from its primary feeder markets in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia.

"We don't get a lot of business now from Atlantic City," he said. "However, I think sports betting will attract some new people. It's a new product, and I think people in Philadelphia and perhaps as far away as New York will come down to Delaware to try it." 

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