Lesniak’s next big prediction: Bet on A.C.

Flag-bearer for sports gambling in N.J. thinks industry will turn city into winner

By Tom Bergeron
Atlantic City | Jun 14, 2019 at 11:52 am
Editor’s Desk

Ray Lesniak was all alone when he said New Jersey would get legalized sports betting.

And he had few supporters when he said the state would quickly surpass Las Vegas for the most sports betting revenue.

Friday is the one-year anniversary of the success of the first prediction.

This summer could be the time to celebrate the second.

So, perhaps folks should listen when Lesniak offered his next prediction: “Atlantic City will soon become the Las Vegas of the East Coast in terms of revenue, guests and general appeal.”

It’s a prediction that has been made since gambling came to the resort town in 1978. And one that’s never come close to cashing in.

Thanks to sports gambling, though, Lesniak feels it finally will — and sports betting will be the driver, because it appeals to the younger generation.

Lesniak said it is analogous to the recent boost of the ski industry.

“The ski industry was dying,” he said. “Then, along came Generation X with snowboarding and, all of a sudden, the ski industry took off and is booming, Both horse racing and casino gambling are not attractive to younger generations, but sports gambling is — as is internet gaming, which also gives additional revenue to Atlantic City.

“This is a new attraction, a year-round attraction, a different type of gambling that’s more attractive to younger generations as well as older folks like me. The sky’s the limit as far as I’m concerned for Atlantic City.”

Sports gambling is different, Lesniak said, because it does not have the same instant payoffs — you have to actually wait for games to finish.

That waiting time, Lesniak said, makes all the difference.

“Atlantic City’s problem, the reason why it was failing, was because the average stay there was less than 10 hours per visit,” he said. “Now, with sports gambling, people will stay for weekends and for weeks during every season.

“They’ll rent rooms, they’ll go to shows, they’ll dine and there’ll be shopping. That tourism will attract additional developments that will be a game-changer for Atlantic City.”

Lesniak said the interest isn’t likely to wane, either.

“The Northeast is a hotbed for sports, with the (NFL’s) Giants, the Jets, the Eagles, baseball, hockey and basketball,” he said. “We love our sports and we like to put a little bet on it. So, this does not surprise me. As far as I’m concerned, we’re right on target.

“I had predicted that this would jumpstart a couple of casinos reopening, and it has. It certainly has brought our racetracks additional revenues so that they can increase purses and keep that sport alive.

“I predicted this all would happen.”

Lesniak, however, admitted he wasn’t always certain Atlantic City would get the chance.

He said there were two low moments during his years-long fight to legalize sports gambling.

“There was a momentary low point when Gov. (Chris) Christie vetoed my legislation and, in really damaging terms, calling it a violation of federal law,” he said. “But then, (state Sen.) Joe Kyrillos and other Monmouth County legislators came to the rescue, because they understood what it meant to Monmouth Park’s survival.”

Then, there were the court fights.

“The only point when I lost some faith was after the last argument before the Court of Appeals,” he said. “Ted Olson was not at the top of his game. The judges weren’t buying his arguments. But that didn’t prevent the Supreme Court from taking the case. And, I must say, when Olsen argued before the Supreme Court, he was at the top of his game.

“That was the only period — between the second time we lost at the Court of Appeals and when the Supreme Court decided to take the case — that I first had my doubts. They were alleviated when the Supreme Court decided to take the appeal. At that point, I knew we would win.”

The success has been staggering.

PlayNJ.com reported this week that the state’s retail and online sportsbooks have generated nearly $3 billion in bets and nearly $200 million in revenue in the 12 months since legal sports betting officially launched.

The site also reported that New Jersey’s handle in May was $318.9 million. Nevada’s numbers are not out, but last May, the state generated a $315.5 million handle.

If there ever were a time for Lesniak to have an I-told-you-so moment, it was Friday.

Lesniak, however, didn’t spike the football. Sure, he sent out an email celebrating the event, but it only had one braggadocious moment.

Lesniak reminded all that he did not place the first sports bet in New Jersey, but he placed the first winning sports bet — as he picked France to win the World Cup.

It was another prediction that came true.