By Mark Washburn
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has cleared the way for states to allow sports wagering, it’s a good bet that lawmakers will study the potential rewards in gambling states like North Carolina.
Yes, that’s right — like North Carolina. We hide it well, but we’re a player, albeit small, in the nation’s gaming industry. Casinos thrive in Cherokee country deep in the highlands, and lottery terminals grind away in nearly every convenience store. Every March brings office pools on NCAA basketball that are rumored to attract even the occasional Baptist.
Sports betting will slowly spread throughout the morally conservative South, probably led by Florida. North Carolina was the last Southern state to establish a lottery, doing so in 2005 with then-Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue casting the deciding vote after the state Senate deadlocked 24-24. It has since pumped about $6 billion into education projects, and opposition has waned. Sports betting will likely follow a similar path to acceptance.
Two peculiar situations make sports wagering attractive for North Carolina: One is means, the other, motive.
States such as West Virginia, Mississippi and Connecticut can easily add Vegas-style sportsbooks in their casinos and regulated racing venues. A sin tax will be extracted and handed over to the state.
But North Carolina is well-positioned to cut out the independent operators and run sports betting by itself. It could give the job to the N.C. Education Lottery and run the operations out of its archaic, monopolistic network of state liquor stores. Gamblers could make their wagers at self-serve terminals and pay for their tickets at the counter. State ABC stores already sell lottery “products,” and the additional burden would be light.
On to the motive: One weakness of the state lottery is that it’s tough to see what the money does. Its impact is largely invisible, commingled with other taxes to serve public and charter-school operations. While the lottery provides scholarship aid to 28,000 students at state universities or community colleges and need-based grants to others, it is impossible to identify a single brick, book or hunk of chalk directly traceable to the lottery. When school systems have to economize by cutting programs or positions, the angry public wonders why lottery money can’t cover it.
Proceeds from sports betting, though, give the state a chance to develop a high-profile, popular and clearly focused fix. All profits from sports wagering could go toward scholarships for North Carolina’s A and B high-school students attending any accredited in-state public or private college. It could be the only outcome associated with the lottery where everyone’s a winner.
To be sure, the state would prohibit betting on college sports in any of the in-state leagues such as the ACC or CIAA. People still remember the 1961 point-shaving scandal involving N.C. State and UNC at the old Dixie Classic hoops tournament. But if the NCAA basketball tournament were perhaps exempt from the prohibition, the public would be satisfied.
Even with the state running the whole show, sports wagering is unlikely to be a golden geyser. Margins are thin — about 5% — and professional leagues are agitating to get a slice as “integrity fees,” ostensibly to police potential corruption.
So expect sports betting to spread and become routine, like state lotteries. Will North Carolina again be one of the last holdouts, morally conflicted over the practice? Don’t bet on it. It’s poised to be a winner.