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  • Mississippi is one of the first states in line to legalize full-scale sports betting, but the entire SEC is wrestling with the possibilities that could arise as more and more states pass their own laws.
By Ross Dellenger
June 05, 2018

The poster hung in each clubhouse that John Cohen entered as a minor league baseball player in the early 1990s. Plastered on the wall outside of the manager’s office or around the corner from the training room, its subject matter focused on the misdeeds of Pete Rose, the would-be Hall of Famer famously blackballed for betting on baseball.

Nearly three decades later, Cohen, now the athletic director at Mississippi State, wonders aloud if he’ll soon see that poster again, this time in a new home: the locker rooms of college sports teams.

“You walked into any clubhouse and it was the first poster you see. It listed all the ways that you can gamble,” Cohen says. “I can foresee that type of situation in college. We have to be overly officious in the way we educate our kids to maintain the integrity of the game.”

Cohen made that prediction in a mostly empty ballroom at the Sandestin Hilton last week on the busiest day of the SEC’s annual spring meetings. Thirty minutes later, the same room filled with the most powerful people in the SEC, from athletic directors and presidents to high-ranking league officials. The Supreme Court’s legalization of sports betting last month has college sports, and its most powerful conference, buzzing with uncertainty that some might say verges on paranoia.

“It’s definitely something that’s a new world,” Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork says. “Twenty years ago you didn’t think you’d have to talk about this. Now that it’s here, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got a game plan. People can have their choices, whether they believe in gambling or not. That’s not the issue. It’s about the integrity of the game and the rules.”

The league’s two Mississippi schools will feel the effects of the new legislation before anyone else.

The Supreme Court’s decision to revoke a 26-year federal ban on sports gambling does not legalize the act across the country but rather grants states autonomy to make their own decisions on the subject. Mississippi is one of a handful of states that had a pre-existing law in place to allow for sports betting as soon as possible after the Supreme Court had weighed in.

Delaware won the race to be the first state to join Nevada in offering full-scale sports betting, commencing operations at its three casinos on Tuesday afternoon. New Jersey lawmakers were hoping as of Monday night to have their regulatory bill for sports gaming approved and signed in time to take bets Friday, according to the Associated Press. West Virginia isn’t far behind. And Mississippi seems to be closing in on its own first, as the only state in the SEC’s vast footprint expected to legalize sports betting by football season.

The folks in the Magnolia State are confident enough about the changes ahead that the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino in Biloxi has already hired architects to turn an existing area into a sports book, says Scott King, the casino’s vice president of marketing.

“The Golden Nugget wants to create a sports book atmosphere like you get in Las Vegas,” King says, referring to the bustling, open areas laden with TVs, betting booths and a full bar common on the Strip. “We think there is a potential to give this market an injection of new life.”

For the SEC and other college conferences, the Supreme Court ruling could give college sports an injection of potential problems. The most obvious: athletes, coaches and staff members need to make sure they do not violate NCAA rules by betting. Unpaid players as young as 17 or 18 are vulnerable to the bribes and fixes at the center of most gambling scandals. A Las Vegas sports book director also claimed that legalized sports betting will require more revealing injury information than most college programs typically give out.

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The SEC began to confront each of these hurdles last week in closed-door meetings with its coaches, athletic directors, presidents and, yes, even its athletes.

“When we were in one of our meetings, they asked the student-athletes, ‘What do you see is a topic in the next five years that we’ll be discussing down the road?’” says Blake Ferguson, a long snapper for LSU who chaired one of the league’s student advisory councils. “That’s the one I said: sports gambling.

“When you have student athletes playing at the highest level who are not professional ball players, there’s a huge vulnerability for those athletes to be bribed or whatever the case may be, fixing games. I see that as an issue that could kind of take place down the road.”

“Understanding” and “educating” were the words SEC commissioner Sankey used to describe the focus of the dialogue in Destin regarding sports betting. According to Cohen, the league is pushing its members to educate its athletes at a much higher level than it already does.

Many universities distribute gambling information to their players now. Ole Miss, for instance, brings in a law enforcement expert to explain the pitfalls of sports gambling, Bjork says, “but we don’t have [sports] gaming right down the street.”

The Rebels could soon. Mississippi is home to more than 25 casinos, most along the Gulf Coast and in Tunica, a delta town 40 miles southwest of Memphis.

“We’re an hour and 10 minutes from Tunica. There are casinos in the central part of the state and on the coast,” Bjork said. “Now you have to talk with your student athletes about physically not going into these places, into a sports book.”

But it remains to be seen whether legalizing sports betting will significantly change the gambling industry or the leagues affected by it.

“My guess is those bets are currently being placed,” Florida AD Scott Stricklin said. “That’s probably already happening.”

The American Gaming Association estimates that about $150 billion is wagered each year on sports, with all but $5 billion of it done illegally, through local bookies or off-shore accounts. That’s why some believe widespread legalization of sports betting won’t greatly impact college athletics.

“It’s going to make a lot of coaches and administrators paranoid for really no reason,” says Matt Youmans, a former sports betting columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal who now works with Brent Musburger at the Vegas Stats & Information Network. “I don’t think it’s going to have a major impact on college sports except it’s going to make everything more popular. Interest in college football and basketball is going to surge more than it already is.”

Youmans and other Vegas betting experts say wagering on college football has soared recently. In fact, Nevada set a record last year with $248.8 million in total revenue from sports betting. Chris Andrews, the director of the sports book at the South Point Hotel Casino & Spa in Vegas, says that at one point last season he saw more action on college football games than on the NFL.

“Personally, I think the NFL is kind of boring,” says Andrews, who has spent four decades in the industry. “Up 21–0 in the NFL, game’s over. In college, you could be down four TDs in the fourth quarter, you’re still in it.

“It’s going on [illegally] right now. On the internet, it’s not that hard to find a place to put a bet down.”

Coaches already knew there was action on their games—“When I open a newspaper, there’s already a line on the game, so if you want to do it you can do it somewhere,” Florida’s Dan Mullen said—but they largely shrugged off the fact that they’ll be calling plays in games that many more people are now wagering on legally. Asked if fans would be upset if he elected not to a field goal late in a blowout with the spread on the line, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp deadpanned, “They’re usually pissed anyway.”

In states that pass new laws to introduce sports betting, Youmans expects 75% of sports bettors who have been gambling illegally to turn to legal avenues and 25% to continue betting in the shadows with bookies and online outfits. That might not be how it plays out in Mississippi, though.

The state’s law, which passed in 2017, is written in a way that restricts all sports gaming to casino property, says Richard Bennett, a Republican representative in the Mississippi legislature who authored the sports betting bill. In Las Vegas, bettors can place wagers from anywhere through an app on their phones after they’ve set up accounts with casinos. In Mississippi, all bets placed through a phone must be done on casino property. It will be Mississippi Gaming Commission executive director Allen Godfrey’s job to enforce that.

“It’s another game on a casino floor,” says Godfrey. “It’s just another Keno or Bad Beat Poker. We have to familiarize ourselves and feel confident we can regulate it.”

That process is in hurry-up mode. If the state’s gaming commission approves the regulations at its June 21 meeting, sports betting at Mississippi casinos could begin 30 days later, Godfrey says. Meanwhile, casino officials are wondering how much the legalization will impact their revenue numbers. Youmans believes those states that legalize sports gambling can take advantage of the new clientele: the rookies.

“We looked at it from all angles,” he said, “it creates more gamblers and more amateurs.”

Andrews describes the revenue from a sports book as a “drop in the bucket” compared to table games and, certainly, slot machines. The Nevada Gaming Control Board’s latest revenue report speaks to this: Nevada casinos made $259.8 million in sports betting in a 12-month span ending last month. Over the same stretch, they made a combined $3.1 billion on four floor games that each exceeded revenues from sports gambling: baccarat ($1.232 billion), blackjack ($1.165 billion), craps ($390 million) and roulette ($374 million). Slot machines trumped them all, pulling in $7.525 billion. That’s not stopping casinos from thinking ahead.

“A lot of the casinos have hired firms to come in and set up things for them,” says Bennett, who lives in Long Beach, Miss., and represents a district along the state’s coast. “These firms know how to operate the sports books and get them going. They’ve been preparing for this.”

So have universities. Bjork says Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss are working together in preparation for the passage of the gaming commission’s regulations. The schools are currently engaged in setting up meetings with local authorities, the state legislature and the commission itself.

Meanwhile, league officials have at least briefly discussed the potential for standard, mandated injury reports across the conference, something that Andrews believes is needed. At many Las Vegas casinos like the one where he works, betting limits are lower for college games than for their NFL counterparts because of the lack of school-issued injury information during game week.

“Only thing we’re worried about right now is what will be the mandate for coaches and athletic departments to let us know what the injury situation is,” Andrews said. “We’ve been shooting in the dark all these years. We’re kind of used to that, but if it’s going to become something nationwide, they need to address that like the NFL.”

But revealing injury details is often a bridge that college coaches will not cross. In college football, according to Youmans, two positions have the power to move the line on a game: quarterbacks and running backs.

“Coaches are always going to play games with injuries,” Youmans says. “If Tua [Tagovailoa] is the starter and he’s got a knee injury, you think [Nick] Saban is going to play it straight on an injury report?” Youman asked with a chuckle.

“That’ll be a tough deal,” Mullen said. “I’m not big on giving injury reports. I don’t know that’ll change.”

Stricklin envisions standard injury reports that are less detailed than ones released by the NFL. But what about suspensions? Coaches often keep those hidden until moments before kickoff.

“I could see you having an Available and Not Available list that doesn’t go into detail as to why they’re not available,” Stricklin said. “Also, how many times do you guys show up in a press box and there’s a name that’s suspended that day for a violation of team rules? [That has] nothing to do with an injury.”

The paranoia around college football is destined to only get worse, many believe. Even Sankey revealed last week that he identified to coaches “the need to be more vigilant about those around the program.” The amount of eyes watching practice is a concern.

A major college football practice might be attended by nearly 200 people, when factoring in the 100-plus players, 10 on-field coaches and dozens of support staffers—from strength coaches to equipment managers to statisticians to graduate assistants. That doesn’t include the various boosters and administrators who pop by, or the students who get a glimpse of drills while walking to class. NFL teams have 53 players on the active roster and are forced to open a portion of practices to the media. That’s not the case in college. With many practices completely or mostly closed to reporters, rumors are passed around on social media and internet message boards, as well as in classes on campus. With the increased activity anticipated from legalized gambling, inside information will have more of a premium placed on it as gamblers seek it out like never before.

“My guess is there’s probably information flowing from classmates under the radar that we don’t know about right now,” Stricklin said.

Mississippi legalizing gambling doesn’t just affect the Bulldogs and the Rebels. The two casinos in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, are 90 minutes from Baton Rouge and LSU’s campus. The eight casinos in Tunica, are inside of five-hour drives from the campuses of Arkansas and Vanderbilt. The casinos in Philadelphia, Miss., are a two-hour drive from Tuscaloosa.

“I know next door in Mississippi they’re having a lot of discussion about it,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said. “We border them, and we’re going to pay attention to what’s going on over there as well.”

Casinos in Mississippi expect spillover from border states, but no one can be sure how much.

“It’s no secret there’s illegal gambling going on in every state,” Godfrey says. “Is it more convenient to continue that than it is to get in your car to make a legal bet at a casino?”

There are plenty of questions and unknowns on the subject, and college football’s most powerful league is only beginning to sort through them all. In the meantime, SEC director of officials Steve Shaw had a two-word suggestion for athletes, coaches and staff members, which he shared with a room full of reporters in Destin: “Don’t bet.”

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