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Super Bowl bets are at an all-time high — and 97% are 'in the dark'

Daniel Roberts

American sports fans will bet $4.7 billion on the Super Bowl this year, according to a new estimate from the American Gaming Association. That’s an all-time high, and an 11% jump from last year.

Why the big spike in bets? It’s not really about the matchup of the New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons. And it’s not about the over-under in Las Vegas of 58.5 combined points (an all-time Super Bowl high), or the point spread of Patriots by 3. None of those things, experts say, would particularly stoke betting.

New England Patriots QB Tom Brady practices in Houston. (AP)
New England Patriots QB Tom Brady practices in Houston. (AP)

Rather, the AGA says, the primary explanation is the simplest: betting on the Super Bowl goes up every year, with very few exceptions, as does sports betting in general.

But 97% of that $4.7 billion will be bet illegally, and that’s the real story here. The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) banned sports betting in almost all states except Nevada (it also protected lotteries in Delaware, Montana and Oregon). A meager $132 million will be wagered at legal sportsbooks in Nevada before the Super Bowl.

Along with the illegal bets, legal wagering on the game has tracked nearly the same way, rising every year in the past 10 years, except in 2008, 2009 and 2015, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

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The AGA, which lobbies on behalf of big casinos like Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands as well as small gaming operators, always uses the Super Bowl as an event to rally around. But in the last year, the organization has gone into overdrive in its effort to get sports betting legalized.

“There are few laws that have failed more spectacularly than PASPA,” AGA president Geoff Freeman told Yahoo Finance. “Since it was enacted, we’ve seen trillions of dollars bet underground on sports, and there’s no way to track it. It’s all happening in the dark, in unregulated markets.”

Take for just one example a sports fan and frequent bettor in Seattle who did not wish to be named. This person plans to travel to Las Vegas for the Super Bowl in order to place a $1,000 bet on the New England Patriots as well as place a number of “prop bets” (proposition bets on the likelihood of various in-game events). “I’m going to spend like $1,000 to fly to Vegas just to place a legal bet,” he tells Yahoo Finance. “It’s ridiculous. I could do it from my couch and save the money, but I want to bet legally.”

When most Americans place a bet outside of Nevada, they either go through a bookie or use one of thousands of offshore web sites—but many people feel uncomfortable doing so.

What everyone in the gaming industry now wants is for Congress to repeal PASPA. “A regulated marketplace,” Freeman says, “would generate tax revenue and jobs, protect consumers and leverage cutting-edge technology to strengthen the integrity of the games we all love.”

Whether that happens relies in part on the new administration, and there is some cautious optimism that President Trump, a former casino owner, might be inclined to help. He has said in interviews that repealing PASPA is “vital” for taxes, for senior citizens, and for keeping illegal bookmakers at bay—but he said that 24 years ago.

Trump has not recently said much of anything on the subject, and while most people agree he is likely pro-sports betting, his extremely conservative choice of attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is almost surely not.

Among sports leagues, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has led the charge for legalizing sports betting, pointing, as many do, to the state tax benefits. Other commissioners have been more reticent.

What’s certain is that many are waiting to hear Trump’s stance on the sports betting issue, and the Super Bowl could provide the flint. Sports betting on the big game, and sports betting broadly, isn’t slowing down in America. Now the gaming industry wants Congress to catch up.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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