For months the NFL has been threatening to sue Delaware if the state went ahead with plans for sports betting this fall.
Friday, the league, which had been pro sports' biggest opponent to Delaware's plans, followed through. And it convinced some powerful friends to join in the fight. In federal court in Wilmington, the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL and the NCAA filed a complaint to stop Gov. Jack Markell and the Delaware State Lottery Office from taking bets on their games.
Delaware, along with Nevada, Montana and Oregon, is one of four states legally exempt from the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a federal law which prohibits states from being in the bookmaking business. But the state hasn't had sports betting since a failed attempt at allowing parlay betting in the mid-1970s. Now, faced with an $800 million budget deficit, Markell is turning to sports betting to hopefully raise between $50-$100 million for his state.
Soon after the Delaware state Senate approved Markell's sports betting proposal in May, the question of whether the state would continue with parlays -- which require picking two or more winners to cash in a bet -- or if it would allow single-game betting like Nevada, became paramount. Delaware pols favored single-game betting because they expected it would attract more gamblers and money from neighboring Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The leagues think those plans are against the law.
"Delaware did not conduct single-game wagering during its 1976 sports lottery, which was limited to parlay bets on NFL games," league representatives said in a joint statement. "The PASPA exception does not permit Delaware to now conduct single-game wagers on the NFL or wagering on sports other than the NFL."
The NCAA added separately, "The NCAA recognizes the economic challenges facing the State of Delaware, however, legalized betting on college games will provide more harm than good."
Delaware has plans to begin allowing betting this fall, in time for the NFL season, at its three racinos, which house racetracks and slot machines. At Dover Downs, near the state capitol, space is already being carved out from an unused restaurant to make room for a new sports book. And, while the leagues are asking for an injunction to stop any kind of betting that will cause, "irreparable harm to their reputation and goodwill," plans in Delaware continue to move forward.
"Delaware's sports lottery will help pay for our core government services like our teachers and police and will also create new jobs in our state. That's our focus," Joe Rogalsky, the Markell administration's communications director, said in a statement. "We asked for and received a Delaware Supreme Court advisory opinion prior to moving forward to ensure we are in compliance with state law. We invited the NFL to sit down and share their concerns. They decided instead to sue."
NFL vice president Joe Browne said that the league is sensitive to economic issues in Delaware and other states. He said that the NFL wrote to Markell on April 7, telling him the league would be willing to discuss ways to help close the state's budget gap -- "short of using our games as betting vehicles."
According to Browne, Markell responded five weeks later "that he was signing legislation that day which, in effect, uses our games as betting vehicles."
The debate between Delaware and the NFL has bordered on contentious. One longtime observer of Delaware politics said Friday, "It's ironic the NFL sues us to protect its integrity on the day reports come out that Mike Vick is about to be reinstated."
The complaint alleges that sports betting in Delaware violates the 1992 anti-sports betting law, as well as the state law which mandates all forms of gambling be games of chance, not skill. The leagues argue that, by going from parlay to single game betting, chance gives way to skill.
In his statement, Rogalsky noted that the state asked for an advisory opinion from the Delaware Supreme Court.
In May, that court ruled that the state law allowing sports betting didn't conflict with the state constitution, but the
justices also said, "we cannot opine on the constitutionality of single game bets."
"The federal claim seems to be the weaker of the two to me," said Jeffrey Standen, a law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., who specializes in sports and gambling. "If Delaware allowed bets on sports outcomes back in the day, is it really all that different if the outcome is on one game as opposed to three?
"But the state claim may be a stronger case. With a single game there is more skill involved than trying to pick multiple games. Would that single game bet still fit within the lottery exemption? Is it enough of a bet of luck?"
Chad Millman is a senior deputy editor at ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.