Updated on 09/16/2011 8:53AM

Sports betting waiting in the wings

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In the tidal wave of talk that engulfed Tucson and the University of Arizona's Symposium on Racing last week, two words were missing from the torrent.

Sports betting.

It is quite possible, however, that they will be added to the lexicon of gambling on the East Coast next year.

How could that happen, when sports betting is illegal almost everywhere?

The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1994 makes it illegal "for any person to sponsor, operate, advertise or promote, pursuant to the law or compact of a governmental entity, a . . . betting, gambling, or wagering scheme based, directly or indirectly . . . on one or more competitive games in which amateur or professional athletes participate, or are intended to participate, or on one or more performances of such athletes in such games."

Sports betting is possible in Delaware because it was one of three states - Nevada and Oregon being the other two - that were grandfathered out of the Sports Protection Act nine years ago. Those states are not subject to the very specific provisions of the act because at the time the act passed, they had already authorized sports betting.

Delaware has slot machines at its three racetracks - Delaware Park, Dover Downs, and Harrington Raceway - and 46 percent of the gamblers at those tracks' casinos come from Maryland and Pennsylvania. They and Delawareans pour some $200 million into the state's coffers every year, playing slots.

Both Maryland and Pennsylvania have new governors who ran on platforms that included adding VLT's to the betting menus of their racetracks. Bill Oberle, the man largely responsible for slots at Delaware tracks, says he does not intend to sit idly by and see Delaware's huge advantage disappear.

You may not know Bill Oberle if you're not from Delaware, but if you are you know who he is and what he has done.

He is Delaware-born and -bred, a former Navy and DuPont man who was elected to the Delaware General Assembly in 1976 and has served there with distinction for 26 years. He has been both House minority whip and majority leader during that time, and is speaker pro tem of the state's House of Representatives. He has been an activist in Delaware legislation, and he also happens to be a harness horse breeder and owner.

He was the man who made sure horsemen's purses came off the top of slots revenue in Delaware, and he is the man who will make sure they come off the top of sports betting as well, if it comes to pass. And to make certain that Delaware meets the threat of competition to those slots, he plans to introduce legislation next month that will permit slot operation at Delaware's tracks 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Oberle also is responsible for House Resolution 63, which created a committee to study the feasibility of instituting sports gambling activities at existing gaming venues in Delaware. The committee includes one designee of each of Delaware's three tracks; the director of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems; the secretary of the Delaware Department of Finance or his designee; two public members, one appointed by the speaker of the House and one appointed by the minority leader of the House; and two members of the House of Representatives, one appointed by the speaker of the House and one appointed by the minority leader.

The 10-person committee already has met three times, and it will meet again this week before it presents its advisory report to the House of Representatives by Jan. 15.

Passage of whatever the committee proposes is not a cinch bet in 2003, but if Pennsylvania and Maryland introduce slots at tracks next year, look for sports betting in Delaware no later than 2004. Under Bill Oberle's leadership, you can be certain it will get a good ride, and will protect racing.

If it comes, under Delaware law it will require that sports betting be run as a lottery, "in which games of chance rather than skill of the player is the predominating factor." Also, the operation would have to be owned and run by the state.

They may not have talked about sports betting in Tucson, but they're talking about it in Delaware, and chances are they'll be talking about it plenty by Symposium time next year.