Vin Scully, an eloquent and brainy sports broadcaster, never paid much attention to the small print summarizing baseball and football games.
“Statistics,” Scully said, “are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination.”
Gassy advocates for the gambling industry are full of statistics these days. In particular, they cite a study from Oxford Economics stating that Americans illegally bet $150 billion a year on sports.
Then they couple this dubious statistic with a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a federal law that blocked most states from establishing sports books, such as the ones in Nevada casinos. In those glitzy dens, gamblers can bet on every event from auto racing to hockey, and even on the outcome of a pregame coin toss or whether a coach will challenge a referee’s call.
Because of the court decision, many politicians are gushing about the ease with which states could tap a new revenue stream if they legalized betting on sporting events.
State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, is one of them. “If we were on the ball, we would have done legislation in 2017 or 2018” to legalize betting on sports, Maestas tweeted after the Supreme Court ruling.
New Mexico legislators don’t go back into session until January. But it’s clear that Maestas or another lawmaker will sponsor a bill to legalize sports betting.
Proponents of sports books will say they are a means of fattening state revenues while putting the corner bookie out of business.
Is it really that simple? Can states legalize gambling on sports, then just sit back and watch their cash multiply?
The answer probably is no, says Brad Humphreys, a professor at West Virginia University whose specialty is the business of professional sports and the economics of gambling.
For starters, the size of the betting market and gambling revenues are unknowns, despite heavy use of the $150 billion-a-year statistic.
“As professors of economics, we call those wild guesses,” Humphreys said in an interview.
Humphreys’ state of West Virginia already has approved legislation to permit betting on sports.
“They were thinking of a large revenue stream, but I don’t know. West Virginia is a small, poor state,” he said.
Its two largest cities have populations under 50,000. Overall, West Virginia is home to 1.8 million people.
New Mexico, another state plagued by poverty, is comparable in size, with a population of 2 million.
The market for sports betting in these states might be limited by empty wallets. Well-paying jobs that give workers discretionary income are in short supply.
Another factor is that adding sports books might simply shift money from one form of gambling to another, not enlarge state revenues. For instance, people suddenly inclined to bet on baseball or football games might give up their habit of buying lottery tickets.
Still, many lawmakers in New Mexico are touts for the gambling industry. Each year they offer a bill that would repeal a law requiring the state lottery to transfer 30 percent of its revenues to a scholarship fund for college students.
Legislators eager for this change say the lottery is hogtied by the mandate. If only lottery executives were able to spend more on prizes and advertising, Maestas and other legislators say, the scholarship fund some day would receive tens of millions of dollars more from ticket sales.
They ignore that the lottery previously operated without the requirement of 30 percent of its revenues going for college scholarships. In that era, the lottery provided tens of millions of dollars less for the scholarship program. Instead, it spent more percentage-wise on its administrative operations.
Fortunately for New Mexico residents, lawmakers such as Reps. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, and Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, have blocked bills that would have shortchanged college students while enriching lottery vendors.
If there is a sure bet for next year, it’s that some at the state Capitol will breathlessly say legalizing sports books is a new and painless way to help pay for public schools, highway repairs or more social workers.
They will revive all the statistics suggesting that the state is losing millions to bookmakers who profiteer from illegal betting on sports.
What they won’t say is that sports books can’t create what New Mexico ought to be pursuing — good jobs and excellent schools. They are the keys to success.
As for the chance to place a legal bet on the Cowboys or the Broncos, it will be a sideshow in the circus of state government.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.