Can North Carolina rebound from this whiff on sports gambling? Don’t bet on it.

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Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com
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This was, in the parlance of the moment, a sure thing. The move toward online sports gambling, already legal in Virginia and Tennessee and dozens of other states, had been gathering momentum in North Carolina for years. A series of votes last week was supposed to push it, finally, across the line.

What happened last week was exactly what every gambler who bet on Virginia against UMBC found out the hard way: There are no sure things, especially when the North Carolina General Assembly is involved.

One of two bills necessary to move legal gambling forward failed by a single vote last Wednesday, perhaps stalling momentum until after November’s elections, maybe longer. Even that doomed effort had already been diluted by the removal of all college sports from the betting window, not just those played within the state’s borders as is the case in most other states.

Everything from the moral peril of gambling — in a state that has a lottery and the Cherokee casinos, which already offer sports gambling on their premises — to a college scandal old enough to have grandchildren was marshaled as ammunition in the final push to defeat the bill, yet another example of how our legislature is the all-time World Champion of missing the point entirely.

When you’re citing the 1961 point-shaving scandal at the Dixie Classic as a reason not to legalize sports gambling, as one legislator did, it demonstrates that not only are you living in the past, you lack the most basic understanding that legalized gambling, with all the checks and balances involved, is a barrier to that kind of nefarious chicanery, not a catalyst of it.

If it were, the Carolina Hurricanes and Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Hornets wouldn’t have thrown their full support behind these bills. The NHL and NFL and NBA all long ago stopped seeing legalized gambling as a threat and embraced it as a revenue stream. All three franchises will now remain at a financial disadvantage compared to their peers who can benefit from gambling sponsorships — in arenas and stadiums and on television broadcasts — as well as on-premise sports books.

That’s a particular hardship in the NHL, with a hard salary cap rising based on gambling revenue elsewhere. The Hurricanes have to keep up to remain competitive, paying more in salaries without any way to generate that revenue on their own. As Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon told the News & Observer last year, “us having sports gambling isn’t going to make the Hurricanes more profitable. It’s going to stop us falling further behind.”

But some of our legislators, of both parties, are more interested in clinging to the spectre of sepia-toned basketball scandals no more relevant now than the cigarette smoke that once enveloped them or clutching pearls over the horrors of gambling, not only in a country that has come to accept it as a taxable vice like cigarettes and alcohol, but a state that has had a lottery for 17 years.

Never mind the millions in tax revenue that could have boosted the state budget without touching anyone’s paycheck, including $2 million for programs that treat gambling addiction. Never mind that much of the gambling that would have generated that revenue will continue regardless of what the legislature believes, whether illegally or just across our northern and western borders.

Someone’s going to profit. Might as well be us. As Gov. Roy Cooper told the N&O’s ACC Now podcast last spring, “It’s here whether we like it or not.”

While other states profit from legalized gambling — never mind legalized marijuana, another it’s-happening-anyway sin tax we’ve yet to get around to imposing — North Carolina somehow remains under the spell of this persistent Puritan prudery. Perhaps the legislature will rouse itself over the winter, or next year, and drag itself into the 21st Century.

Don’t bet on it.

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