Outside was one of the more recent enjoyable days during a year of otherwise unruly weather. But, inside a Jersey Shore race track and an Atlantic City casino, June 14 now marks the day that may not only save New Jersey’s distressed horse and gaming industries, it may flip the script nationwide on both domains.

Sports betting went live in New Jersey on Thursday and all involved celebrated after years and years of defeats and patience.

It will take some time to determine just how big the win is for the Garden State and to gauge the true fiscal impact, but one thing is certain: time and patience are the sole reasons New Jersey has found itself in this position.

They unintentionally ended up blazing a trail for all states, a ferocious fight from the four major sports leagues and NCAA.

The result was winning a Supreme Court case that essentially ruled that Nevada’s monopoly on sports betting was unconstitutional. That means New Jersey took one for the team

The Supreme Court ruling means that every state now decides for themselves if they, too, want to add sports betting dollars to their coffers. Delaware, in fact, beat our state to the punch last week by unveiling their full-scale wagering operation.

But, a win is a win, and everybody involved shared a euphoric moment at the state’s newest amenity, attraction, and hopefully, moneymaker.

Despite a grueling seven year, $9 million case, the New Jersey side remained united, even across party lines, determined that they were right and would prevail eventually.

Although Murphy inherited the case that was spearheaded by long-time foes, Gov. Chris Christie and State Senator Ray Lesniak, he was given the honor of placing the first official bet just after 10:30 a.m. at Monmouth Park.

Murphy was all smiles as he placed a $20 bet on Germany to win the World Cup and then forked over another $20 on the home-state New Jersey Devils to win the Stanley Cup next season.

“We knew in our hearts we were right,” Gov. Murphy said. “And we knew in our hearts that we would win. And we did.”

Photo by Matthew White
Photo by Matthew White

It was a truly special day for Monmouth Park, which hosted the ceremony, after they essentially went all-in to make Thursday’s events become a reality.

The Jersey Shore race track has long viewed sports betting as their lifeline to save and defend the historic venue against ever-increasing competition from surrounding states, armed with casino table games and slots. That factor has meant more dollars to attract better horses, offer bigger purses, and pretty much muscle their way around this tough industry armed with their checkbook.

Thursday, though, New Jersey threw their own counterpunch that is sure to reverberate through multiple industries.

Plus, the fact that Monmouth Park and the Borgata in Atlantic City were the first two Jersey venues to be open for business was hardly a fluke. While Borgata converted part of its already-existent horse racing book as it builds a section devoted for sports betting, Monmouth Park bet on the fact that New Jersey would eventually prevail in court. And that meant time, money and a lot of patience as they went all-in on their effort.

Dennis Drazin, Monmouth Park’s operator, decided to partner with England’s top sports book, William Hill, all the way back in 2012 on a venue at the track that would serve as a sports book if and when New Jersey was able to bring sports gambling to the Garden State.

The two companies would end up investing nearly $3 million as their ready-to-go sports book opened and operated, but it was almost a tease for executives involved. They had all of the televisions, screens for potential betting options, kiosks, a betting window, and the name recognition of one of the world’s largest legal sports betting companies, William Hill. Thursday, though, the partnership and patience paid off in spades.

While most of the eligible gambling venues in New Jersey will require construction of a sports book or face some sort of delay to get up to speed, Monmouth Park is fully operational already. In addition to having more time to earn money during this opening phase, they also have the advantage of working out their kinks now before football season arrives.

“It’s a historic day for Monmouth Park and for the state of New Jersey,” said Drazin. “We’ve been fighting this fight for more than six years in the courts and now that this day has arrived, and judging by the response from the fans who turned out for this, it’s exciting. Clearly, it’s something the people of New Jersey have been waiting for.”

Photo by Matthew White
Photo by Matthew White

Even though thousands of New Jerseyans around the state got to experience a little taste of Las Vegas on a day that I would bet lives in infamy, there are actually quite a number of events set to occur in the near future to strengthen New Jersey’s newfound revenue stream.

Online betting, which is already the preferred method for those gambling illegally, will be available within 30 days here in New Jersey. Many casinos and race tracks, which are the only places in the state eligible to host sports betting, are feverishly working on, planning, and trying to finalize their plans to build sports books in their casinos, as well as partner with companies as they did for online casino gaming to offer sports betting platforms online.

Industry experts expect the digital options, if done correctly, to be critical for gamblers, fans, and a major hope for the new industry — new clients who they believe will relish the opportunity to watch a game from the comfort of home with a wager they placed on their phone or iPad, and, of course, the chance to win some money.

To incentivize players to physically attend tracks or casinos, the new legislation signed by Gov. Murphy sets the tax rate to 8.5% at the physical locations, while the tax rate for online winnings is 13%. The state refused to pay the sports leagues, which had sued them all these years, from paying so-called “integrity fees” after the Supreme Court ruling.

However, the most essential factor of all when it comes to just how much sports betting, from soup to nuts, could mean for the Garden State is football. Football remains the king of sports that are wagered on. Estimates suggest, when factoring in legal and illegal betting, well north of $100 billion is wagered on the NFL. The NFL season not only has the ability to rake in tons of money on the actual wagers and taxes, but if race tracks and casinos can draw huge crowds to sports books, the impact would be almost immeasurable.

The irony part in all of it is the NFL pushed the hardest to fight the case against New Jersey.

Although Thursday provided a small sample size, it certainly rang loud with the potential that led to the Garden State digging in and taking on all comers for this signature legal and legislative achievement. The reactions from the crowd at Monmouth’s sports book gave observers the quick realization that this could prove lawmakers correct as not just be a novelty, but a true game-changer for entertainment, nightlife, and whether New Jersey’s tracks and casinos could become a big draw for both residents and visitors out-of-state.

Photo by Matthew White
Photo by Matthew White

Actually, a woman from Ocean Country truly captured the magnitude of what this could all mean for the state.

“Today I picked my first sports bet ever and I cannot believe how easy it was to do or how close it is to where I live,” Alison, 29, from Point Pleasant said. “It will only get easier when you can use phones and computers, but it is so cool that my home state offers the same stuff that Vegas does.”

She said if it can help lower taxes or cover some of the astronomical state costs here, then the sky is the limit.

“I am not even a sports fan and here I am at Monmouth Park on a Thursday morning,” Alison explained. “This will be so huge for the tracks and just maybe this is what Atlantic City needed to rebound from a rough bunch of years and really help our state out. So many people I know don’t ever want to leave New Jersey, but are forced to because of the cost.”

The Ocean County woman said that maybe this is the shot in the arm needed to get New Jersey back on track.

She will have to wait to a little bit to find out if her first sports book experience was a win or loss after wagering $20 on England to win the World Cup at 16/1 odds.

In a day filled with a level of hope and optimism not often seen at Jersey tracks these days, and nouns, such as euphoria, jubilation, and bliss being tossed around Oceanport, there was one very notable absence, especially considering that this individual loves sports and was in the thick of this brutal court conflict for nearly all of it.

That person would be former Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie was invited to be part of Thursday morning’s celebration, but decided not to partake in the festivities. While current Gov. Phil Murphy signed the legislation to officially establish sports betting regulations and got to place the ceremonial first bets, Christie certainly deserves his due for this.

He and Sen. Ray Lesniak (D) famously feuded about a myriad of issues during their time at the State House, but sports betting and what it could mean for New Jersey was a subject they were wholeheartedly agreed on. The two of them, along with Dennis Drazin, became the face(s) of New Jersey’s full court press legal strategy. The six-plus year ride was full of drama, including several different strategies.

The attempts by Christie and Lesniak began in 2011 with a voter referendum that overwhelming passed, followed by legislation introduced in Trenton and signed by the then-governor. As the state prepared to begin taking sports bets in time for the 2012 football season, the four leagues and NCAA joined forces to challenge the state’s legislation. The future looked bleak as the state lost in district court and appeals court, and was denied by the Supreme Court in 2014.

Lesniak was undeterred and decided to try a new approach by merely repealing New Jersey’s betting prohibitions under the 1992 PASPA legislation (which is what the Supreme Court ultimately deemed unconstitutional) and limiting those activities to casinos, race tracks, and the sites of former tracks, such as Cherry Hill and Atlantic City. New Jersey thought this version had a real chance and saw some cracks in the league’s unity as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wrote an op-ed calling on Congress to allow sports betting and create a universal regulation system.

Again, though, New Jersey lost in district and appeals court, but decided to ask the Supreme Court once more to hear their case. New Jersey was finally granted a hearing in the middle of 2017 to be heard this past December, just over a month before Christie left office.

Christie, a lawyer by trade who actually just set up his own law firm in a post-transition move, handled New Jersey’s legal arguments in front of the Supreme Court on December 4. That case and the surrounding circumstances had a different feel as many people in the New Jersey camp were much more confident as was the legal community.

Those vibes turned out to be correct because the Supreme Court overwhelmingly ruled in the state’s favor 7-2 in a decision almost exactly a month ago.

We will continue to monitor why Christie did not attend, especially since he played as integral a part as anybody and devoted countless hours to the cause. That included several false start legislation signings and press conferences with the tease of legal betting on football. Lawsuits tended to follow.

While he ended his governorship with low approval numbers, whatever comes out of sports betting may turn out to be a significant way for him to leave a positive and lasting legacy (and money) to New Jersey.

It certainly did not always look pretty on this issue, but it is certainly an important one. And there’s a golf phrase that aptly fits.   There’s no picture on the scorecard.

So, as we wait for the answer to some unanswered questions, such as how many bets were placed day one, how much money made, and why Gov. Christie missed the celebration (maybe the bad blood with Murphy runs deep?), one thing is for certain and undisputed.

Thursday was an enormous day for New Jersey. And while “game changer” gets thrown around sometimes too often, it really does apply in this case. As long as the mobile and digital platforms are up to par by the time football season starts, New Jersey’s fortunes may start to change — positively. That is something none of us get to say too often.

And if it helps to lower taxes or significantly helps the pension problem, then all people involved deserve that Nobel Peace Prize that President Trump was recently talking about.

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