ith state tax collections going flat and Gov. Brian Kemp ordering state agencies to cut spending, there’s more pressure than ever to find another tax revenue source in Georgia.
It’s been almost 30 years since an amendment passed to allow the birth of the Georgia Lottery, and supporters in Georgia feel like it’s finally time to expand gambling laws to preserve the HOPE scholarship, Atlanta Business Chronicle reports.
“I believe it’s coming sooner rather later to Georgia,” said Georgia representative Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain. “[Casino resorts could] produce opportunities to have a vehicle to do sports betting as well. I must say that if everyone gambled like I did, they all would be out of business, even the lottery."
But Mitchell said it's clear that the lottery has opened up opportunities for Georgia students.
"I like to say all the time there’s only two ways to get into Georgia’s premier universities — a great student and HOPE scholar or be a great athlete," he said. "There’s no other way you’re going to able to get into the Georgia’s and Georgia Tech’s of the world. It’s kept our best and brightest at home.”
Kemp opposed previous attempts to expand gambling laws but said he wouldn’t stand in way of constitutional amendment to let voters decide as long as the revenue goes to the HOPE scholarship. But if legislators are politically against it or view legalized betting as a nonstarter, then that could kill supporters’ momentum next year, despite months of studying the issue.
It’s hard to deny the financial success of sports betting nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling cleared the path last year. The legal wagering market set a monthly record reaching nearly $1.4 billion in September, according to the American Gaming Association, a casino industry trade group.
Colorado became the 19th state to legalize sports betting in some form last month.
There’s been strife over the years to bring casinos and horse tracks to Georgia, but a bill to legalize online sports betting could provide a path to legal wagering in the Peach State.
The top brass of the city’s most popular professional sports teams — Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United — in an unprecedented move last month created a coalition to push for legalized online (mobile) sports betting. The recently formed Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance penned a letter insisting that the teams wouldn’t receive direct financial benefits, and that for the teams it’s more of an opportunity to further engage with their respective fanbases.
“There might be some ad dollars but it’s all about fan engagement,” said Hawks CEO Steve Koonin. “Why does the last quarter of a 38-0 Monday night [NFL] game still rate higher than anything else? Honestly, to see who wins the over/under.”
The Braves hired Atlanta-based lobbying firm Taylor English Decision LLC earlier this year to advocate on their behalf for legal sports betting.
Greg Maffei, CEO of Braves owner Liberty Media (Nasdaq: BATRA), spoke about betting during a conference call last month.
“I do think it’s both somewhat of a revenue opportunity, but perhaps even more of a fan engagement opportunity, which will just strengthen baseball,” he said.
Conservative groups in Georgia have been vocal about their objection to sports betting, saying the practice breeds crime and unlawful activity. But Billy Linville, a lobbyist who is representing the Alliance, believes the proposed bill will get ‘bipartisan support’ as it’ll remove the illegality of mobile betting currently going via offshore sportsbooks.
Linville said the bill, which he plans to get sponsored during session, will require operators to use league data for in-game wagers and prohibits team insiders from betting on their sports.
“Any legislation that we will support will have strict regulations, rigorous consumer protection with taxation of revenues, tools to help the integrity of the game, but also to help law enforcement eradicate illegal sports wagering,” he said. “We’re really going to bring it out of the darkness into the light.”
It’s not necessary to have ‘brick and mortar’ facilities to place bets, as states like Tennessee and New Hampshire have passed legislation to allow online betting. The Alliance looks at Tennessee as a model for Georgia, with a conservative estimate of potentially recording $50 million a year in tax revenue.
A bill to legalize online betting may need less support than a pari-mutuel bill, potentially not needing an amendment.
“A journey starts with a first step,” Koonin said when asked about the chances of approval. “I’m not going to go set odds of our success. But we believe that if this doesn’t happen, then we’re going to see millions of dollars go to Tennessee and North Carolina, like it did with the lottery years ago.”
Local regional sports networks like Fox Sports South, which is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group (Nasdaq: SBGI), also could benefit if online sports betting does become legalized. A study done by UGA professor Steven Salaga and two others shows the relationship between local viewership and online betting could potentially strengthen if legalized in Georgia.
“You would have to increase the connection that current people who are actually betting have to the actual product,” Salaga said hypothetically. “In other words, now that they can bet legally in Georgia, they’re becoming more attached to Hawks’ games [for example] and then they watch longer or more often. Or the legalized sports betting in the state would actually need to increase the number of people that wager. So, this would be the people that didn’t wager using offshore sportsbooks before but now that it’s legal, they’re now betting.”
It remains to be seen if a constitutional amendment will be needed or not. Or if online sports betting will be the most viable avenue to get legalized gambling through the General Assembly.
Despite wagering-related bills failing to get through during last session, supporters will start the session, which begins in January, more confident than ever, with hopes that the state's need for revenue will help get a sports betting-related bill passed by both houses.
Commercial real estate broker Rick Lackey runs a grassroots movement called ‘Let Us Decide’ which was created to encourage legislators to allow citizens to determine the state’s future.
Lackey and other supporters believe the best scenario is to put the power in the hands of the people.
“Let the people vote,” he said. “That’s all we’re trying to do… Let’s get this thing on the ballot and let the people of Georgia vote on it. If it’s no, it’s no. If it’s yes, it’s yes.”