Supreme Court ruling paves way for Meadowlands

John Brennan, former reporter for The Record. – Courtesy photo

The Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce engaged John Brennan — the longtime Meadowlands writer for The Record and one of the most respected sources on gaming issues nationally — to follow the critical issue of the Supreme Court’s decision on constitutionality of laws preventing sports betting. Today’s decision will ripple throughout the New Jersey economy and is particularly important to the Meadowlands region, which will enjoy another era of attracting entertainment customers to the Meadowlands Racetrack.  

The Meadowlands Racetrack and its in-state rivals — as well as Atlantic City casinos — will soon be able to offer Las Vegas-style sports betting, thanks to a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday that struck down a 26-year-old federal law banning such gambling beyond Nevada.

The ruling finally ends a seven-year saga that has featured: a pair of unusual 2-1 rulings from the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals; Third Circuit judges in the case who included the sister of President Donald Trump and the wife of former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell; more than $8 million in legal bills on the Jersey side; and the exceedingly rare accepting of the case by the nation’s highest court.

While a number of other states already have passed or considered legislation to offer sports betting as well, New Jersey — and the Meadowlands in particular — should enjoy at least a short-term economic boost that goes well beyond the tracks and casinos.

Under current New York state law, no full-fledged casinos can be opened in New York City or the counties of Rockland, Westchester, Nassau or Suffolk for at least five more years. The lag is designed in part to help a Catskills casino — which opened earlier this year — and others in upstate New York get off to a promising start before facing daunting in-state competition.

But New York City’s loss is North Jersey’s gain, as both residents and tourists may be enticed to visit the Meadowlands to watch the big sporting events and gamble on them legally at the same time. For NCAA March Madness weekends and other multiday events, the action should be a boon for local hotels, restaurants and other service industries.

And, while many observers are convinced that this result would lead New York to accelerate efforts to open a Manhattan casino, Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural who has extensive real estate holdings in The Big Apple and familiarity with that state’s gaming and hospitality industry — has been skeptical that will ever happen.

The first bets in New Jersey, meanwhile, are expected to take place at Monmouth Park, which already has a gaming partner — British bookmaker William Hill — and a “sports book” like those in Nevada. Track operator Dennis Drazin has vowed to kick off sports betting “within weeks” of a Supreme Court victory, and he has projected that Monmouth Park can collect $75 million in its first year, enabling the track to boost purses and spend in other ways to help the state’s equine industry.

The first Atlantic City casino to dive in is likely to be market leader Borgata, which announced its intentions six months ago. Ocean Resort Casino, formerly known as Revel, may be ready to offer sports betting upon opening June 28.

Gural and Freehold Raceway officials have supported the legalization effort and plan to offer sports betting. But the Meadowlands track is closed on most NFL Sundays because the New York Giants or Jets are playing, so that would limit its financial upside somewhat.

The saga began when New Jersey passed a statewide referendum in 2011 that directly defied Congress’s Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, or PASPA. That led to a state law authorizing sports betting at the state’s casinos and at current and former racetrack sites. The NFL, NCAA and three other major sports organizations sued in federal court in 2012, and won at the U.S. District Court level and again in the Third Circuit.

But, writing for the majority, Judge Julio Fuentes suggested that while New Jersey’s law ran afoul of PASPA, a revised law could be acceptable. The state then passed a revised law, repealing many of its gambling prohibitions while leaving the field clear for the tracks and casinos to run their own private operation.

The case eventually made it back to the Third Circuit, and, this time, Judges Maryanne Trump Barry and Marjorie Rendell were the majority, again ruling in the leagues’ favor. The dissenter, remarkably, was Fuentes — the only holdover judge from the first case. He found that the changes passed muster, but his colleagues wrote that, while New Jersey’s effort was “clever,” it still amounted to “de facto authorization” by the state for sports betting. That made it impermissible under PASPA, they concluded.

State officials wouldn’t quit, however, and in January 2017 the hopes of backers were buoyed when the case became the only one of more than 100 on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket to be referred to the U.S. Solicitor General — sometimes described informally as “The 10th Justice.” But, four months later, the solicitor general declined to recommend that the court take the case.

Such a blow is nearly always fatal, but little in this saga was predictable. Sure enough, in June, the court ignored the recommendation and agreed to take the case and hold oral argument in December. That effectively turned New Jersey’s bid into “the betting favorite,” since the court tends to overturn federal laws on the rare occasions that cases reach its bench.

Oral argument further bolstered sports betting advocates — and Monday’s ruling confirmed that their hopes were justified.

John Brennan is a freelance writer who spent 34 years as a reporter at The Record. He is the only journalist who has covered the New Jersey sports betting case since its inception in 2011. Brennan was chosen a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Local Reporting in 2008 for his 18-month investigation of the failed Meadowlands EnCap golf and housing project that in its latter stages included real estate developer Donald Trump.

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