New Jersey was left standing on the sidelines earlier this month of yet another lush Super Bowl weekend for Nevada’s sports books, its last chance to challenge the legality of the Silver State’s monopoly on bookmaking in the United States allowed quietly and sullenly to slip away.

“The odds were against us, and we’ve known that for some time,” said James Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor and state senator from Atlantic County, when in November the 10 judges of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted unanimously to refuse New Jersey’s petition for a rehearing of its case against the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the four major professional sports leagues, which had sued to prevent the state from implementing a law authorizing sports betting at Atlantic City’s casinos and the state’s four racetracks. 

An “amazing setback” was how Sen. Raymond Lesniak of Union County in the north of the state, the most outspoken pro-gambling voice in the Legislature, described it.
It was the latest in a string of losses for New Jersey in the federal courts dating back to the end of the last decade, and it meant the clock had all but run out on the appellants: Gov. Chris Christie, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Speaker Emeritus of the Assembly Sheila Oliver, N.J. Division of Gaming Enforcement Director David Rebuck, Frank Zanzuccki, executive director of the N.J. Racing Commission, and the N.J. Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. They had until 15 February to loft a Hail Mary pass in the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of overturning a federal law known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which prohibits their state and 45 other states from licensing any kind of gambling on sports. 
Ironically, it was New Jersey’s own Bill Bradley, a Princeton University basketball star who would play on NBA championship teams with the New York Knicks and go on to serve three terms in the U.S. Senate, who sponsored PASPA with the aim of protecting sports in America from betting-related corruption. It was enacted in the fall of 1992 with a one-year window for any state wishing to exempt itself from its provisions. None did. That left only Nevada, which had been taking bets for years, and Oregon, Montana and Delaware, which had sports lottery laws on their books, outside its broad sweep. 
In New Jersey the ban had never been an issue until the Great Recession hit and casino revenues in Atlantic City went spiraling downward—they’re still spiraling—as states across the populous Northeast began legalizing their own markets and siphoning off gamblers.
Then suddenly it was a big issue.
Lesniak went to the federal courts in 2009 seeking to challenge the Act’s exemptions. But with nothing to argue but the principle of the thing he was sent packing. In order to show harm the people of New Jersey were asked to amend the state constitution to allow sports betting, which they did in a referendum in November 2011. Before the year was out, an authorization bill was introduced in the Legislature. It passed overwhelmingly. Regulations were drawn up. Christie, a strident pro-market Republican with a take-no-prisoners political style and national ambitions that relied in no small part on redeeming Atlantic City’s flagging private sector, signed it into law that January.
Vowing that they’d be taking bets on the Boardwalk before the year was out, the governor threw down the gauntlet. “If someone wants to stop us,” he thundered, “then let them try to stop us.” 
They did. In August 2012, the great powers of the American sports world—the NCAA, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball—went to court, arguing “irreparable harm” if the state was allowed to flout PASPA.
The following February, U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp found for the NCAA and the leagues. He acknowledged the problematic nature of the Act but concluded it was for Congress to address.
Two New Jersey congressmen, Atlantic County Republican Frank LoBiondo and Democrat Frank Pallone representing parts of the northern counties of Middlesex and Monmouth, promptly filed bills to repeal PASPA. 
The state’s legal team assailed Shipp’s from the front with an appeal filed in March to the 3rd U.S. Circuit, the last recourse before the Supreme Court.
Bill Pascrell, a prominent pro-gambling lobbyist based in the state capital of Trenton, spoke in September at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas to the confidence Team Christie was feeling in its belief that a) PASPA clearly undermined states’ rights under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution; and b) that in the face of such an overarching issue the NCAA and the leagues had had no legal standing in the first place.
“I’m very excited about what New Jersey represents in this space,” Pascrell said. “With the issue of sports betting, it’s not a question of if, but when.”
But it was very much a question of “if,” as it turned out, for not a week later, a three-judge panel of the Circuit Court, sitting in Philadelphia, voted 2-1 to reject the appeal.
“I’m agnostic now,” a dejected Lesniak said. “This is the first time that I’ve started to lose my certainty about whether we’re going to win or not.”
Others were watching closely as well. The federal government had joined on the side of the NCAA and leagues. West Virginia, Georgia, Kansas and Virginia filed briefs in support of New Jersey. 
The stage appeared set for some first-rate national theater in the Supreme Court on an issue certain to stir passions on all sides. It didn’t happen, in part because the preponderance of judicial opinion stacked up against New Jersey having been weighed, reality set in on the odds against the court agreeing even to hear the case let alone break with so much precedent, in part because Christie now has far bigger problems. By mid-January, the pugnacious chief executive was the target of federal and state investigations into a scandal tied to allegations that he was in on a dirty tricks campaign against the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., a Democrat and political opponent, that involved the engineering of an epic traffic jam in the city by closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to New York City.
Meanwhile, the LoBiondo and Pallone bills languish in committee, victims of the formidable political machine that is organized sports in America. 
Not that any appetite exists within Washington’s deep partisan divide, now or in the foreseeable future, for steering any expansion of gambling as a matter of national policy.
So Nevada’s special status as the country’s only legal bookmaker enters another year as solid as ever. Millions of bettors will trek there in the months ahead thanks to it, yet what they will leave behind, according to the American Gaming Association, will comprise less than 1 percent of the money bet illegally on sports nationwide, a number that is believed to lie in the neighborhood of $400 billion. 
It’s a maddening situation for those on the outside looking in. In 1989, the Oregon Lottery introduced pool betting on NFL football games, but the Legislature quashed it after the 2006-2007 season as a condition of being allowed to host games in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. Montana’s lottery offers bets on fantasy teams only. In 2009, Delaware launched sports betting, but the action has been limited by the courts to parlays on NFL games. Iowa went ahead a year later and authorized limited sports betting, only to balk at the legal challenges that were sure to follow had they tried to implement it. Several states have since joined the call for PASPA’s repeal.
Super Bowl XLVIII was played on 2 February in, of all places, New Jersey. It was a particularly bitter twist. Atlantic City’s combined gaming revenues have plunged over the last several years to levels not seen since the 1980s. 
And when the dust settled on the Seattle Seahawks’ 43-8 thumping of the overwhelming fan favorite Denver Broncos at the Meadowlands stadium complex outside New York City, Nevada’s bookmakers were $19.6 million to the good on a record $119.4 million in wagers. It was their richest Super Bowl ever. The lopsided nature of the contest ensured that it was the luckiest for them as well. Their win percentage worked out to 16.5 percent, about three times the threshold that marks what the books retain on all bets in an average year.
It also has set them firmly on the path to what likely will be another year of robust growth, considering the sizable chunk the game contributes to their total annual win. Last year’s statewide gross of $202.8 million across 186 books was more than 19 percent better than 2012’s. On a percentage basis, even baccarat, the one consistent growth story Las Vegas’ casinos have had to tell since the recession, didn’t perform that well.
And while February may not be their best month for visitation or total room nights or hotel occupancy or conventions, for gambling revenues it stands apart. The confluence in 2013 of the Super Bowl and Chinese New Year saw Las Vegas and its surrounding communities—home to 90 percent of Nevada’s sports books and 80 percent of its sports betting revenues—enjoy their highest-grossing month of the year at $956.5 million. 
The Strip, which offers 37 books comprising 44 percent of statewide betting revenues, booked $696.1 million.
The rest of the city makes out handily too. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority estimates Super Bowl weekend draws more than 300,000 visitors and produces well more than $100 million in non-gaming economic impact.
“Las Vegas is jammed for Super Bowl week and for the NCAA’s Final Four weekend,” Lesniak has groused, “while Atlanta City is a ghost town.”
UPDATE: 20 February 2014
NJ has now taken its case to the Supreme Court. Read the latest update here: