Delaware starts NFL-only betting

September 4, 2009 12:39:53 PM PDT
Behind the shiny, granite bar in the new sports book at Dover Downs casino, a baseball glove sits on a shelf. A basketball is perched near a cash register. They won't matter for bettors in Delaware's news sports lottery: The only game in town is NFL football. And make that games, not game. After an expensive court battle, plans by state leaders and casino operators to offer betting on single games in multiple sports were struck down. Delaware can only offer betting on at least three NFL games per wager, called parlay bets.

After spending about $12 million to prepare for full sports books, the state's three racetrack casinos are scrambling to make the best of parlays when the NFL regular season starts Thursday. They'll promote Delaware as the only state east of the Rockies with legal sports wagering.

"We're going to make it work," said Dover Downs Inc. president and CEO Ed Sutor.

Dover Downs offers visitors a gleaming, high-tech sports book plastered wall-to-wall with flat-screen TVs and dominated by a huge electronic tote board. This week's action was simulcast horse racing, U.S. Open tennis and ESPN. It's a sure bet football will dominate the screens next week.

State officials still haven't decided what the minimum and maximum betting limits will be, and parlay cards with the game picks and point spreads aren't expected to arrive at casinos until opening day.

Gamblers will make cash wagers and receive payouts on bets that involve at least three games. A bettor must pick all the winning teams to win. The odds of winning, and the payout, increase with the numbers of games bet. For example, a parlay bet on three games might involve 6-to-1 odds, while a parlay involving five teams might involve 25-to-1 odds.

"There's still questions to be answered," said Sutor, who among other things, wonders whether betting will be restricted to preprinted cards or if last-minute electronic wagers can be entered just before game time.

"We are working around the clock on this stuff," acting state finance secretary Tom Cook said. "All I can guarantee you is that we will be ready."

But parlay betting could be a tough sell among some sports fans.

"It's almost like people playing a lottery when you've got to pick that many games ... you might as well pick which three flights are going to land on time," said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Brooks Lindland, 26, of Delmar, said he was interested in the sports lottery "'til I heard it was going parlay."

Others say they don't mind parlay bets, noting that the payoff is bigger even though the odds are greater.

"I'd rather do parlays because it pays a little better," said Dave Miller, 44, of Lewes, who comes to Dover Downs two or three times a week to bet on horses while his wife plays the slots.

Schwartz said it remains to be seen if parlays will bring significant revenue to Delaware, but it does offer a competitive advantage against slot machines in neighboring Maryland and Pennsylvania. He noted that of the $11.6 billion in total gaming revenue last year at Nevada casinos, only about $136 million came from sports betting, including slightly more than $20 million from parlay cards.

The good news for Delaware is that sports-betting is a no-lose proposition: It has a contract with Scientific Games Corp. with a provision indemnifying the state from incurring any losses. If it's profitable, Scientific Games takes 15.6 percent off the top. Of the remainder, the state would get 50 percent, the casinos 40 percent, and the horse racing industry 10 percent.

State officials have no regrets about the court fight that resulted from their attempt to offer sports betting to help raise money in difficult financial times.

"I am not going to be a governor who governs out of fear. In business, you're expected to take risks," said Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, a former telecommunications executive who pushed the betting plan through the state Legislature.


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