Luke DeCock

Cherokee casinos make first bet on sports wagering in North Carolina

Supreme Court lets states legalize sports betting in historic 6-3 decision

With a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that legalizing sports betting should be left up to each state.
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With a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that legalizing sports betting should be left up to each state.

When the ACC and its schools started to wrestle with the implications of legal wagering on sporting events last summer, it all seemed very theoretical and far away, even as one state within the ACC’s footprint hustled to allow it after last May’s Supreme Court decision.

As of this week, the prospects are very real and very close to home.

A bill introduced Wednesday by the state senator whose district includes the two casinos owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians would allow sports wagering on tribal lands in North Carolina, creating a path to legal betting on professional and college sporting events at the two casinos.

The bill, Senate Bill 154, amends the language governing casino gaming on tribal lands to include “the placing of wagers on the outcome of professional and collegiate sports contests.” State Sen. Jim Davis, a Republican whose district includes parts of seven western counties, said the Eastern Band requested the addition.

“Table games and slot machines and all those ancillary gambling opportunities are already legal in this state,” Davis said. “This just expands it to cover sports wagering already deemed to be legal. The Eastern Band has been incredibly vigilant, been good stewards of the money.”

Davis noted that after the Supreme Court’s decision in Murphy v. NCAA last May, “you can’t unring that bell.” The proposal also has the support of Senate leader Phil Berger.

“It would be limited to the boundary, and someone who wanted to participate actually had to be physically present in wagering on sports,” Berger said. “I have no problem with it. I think it would be perfectly appropriate as something we can look at and see how it works if it is ultimately authorized.”

Another bill filed Wednesday, SB 165, would empower the state lottery to license and regulate off-track betting on horse racing, although Berger was less optimistic about its prospects.

Eight states, including Pennsylvania, have legalized wagering on sporting events in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision that lifted the federal ban on sports wagering. While several other states were already exploring the possibility, North Carolina had not previously been one of them.

ACC commissioner John Swofford said last summer that it would take the conference some time to come to grips with the reality of legal betting on its games, but that time is running out. Beyond Pennsylvania, North Carolina now joins Indiana, Kentucky,Massachusetts and New York as ACC states considering proposals to legalize sports wagering.

“I think we just have to plow into this, understand it as best we can, and see if it really is as – if you’re really opposed to it, see if it’s as bad as we really think it is – because I don’t think we know,” Swofford said in July.

Representatives for the ACC, Duke and N.C. State declined to comment Thursday, but through a spokesperson, North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said sports gambling remains a concern.

“We do not support wagering on amateur athletics, but know it is legal in a number of states,” Cunningham said. “We are working with our conference office and will be working with the NCAA on this issue.”

What the bill doesn’t address is whether wagering would be prohibited on college games played within North Carolina and on games played by North Carolina-based public universities (as is the case in New Jersey) or allow it (as in the case in Mississippi).

“These carve-outs seem to be intended to appease public colleges in the state or, at times, what had seemed to be the position of the NCAA,” said Marc Edelman, a professor of law at Baruch College in New York. “There is nothing, as a matter of law, that a college or the NCAA could do to stop a state from allowing sports betting on their games.”

The Eastern Band owns two casinos, both operated by Harrah’s: the original location in Cherokee, which opened in 1997, and a smaller one in Murphy, which opened in 2015. Together, the two casinos employ more than 4,000 people. Last summer, the Cherokee casino began a $250 million expansion that will almost double the size of the attached hotel, from 1,100 rooms to 1,800 rooms, while adding meeting space and a parking deck.

(A previous version of this story referred to the wrong county containing Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. It is in Jackson County.)

“We, at Harrah’s Cherokee, are obviously very interested in the implications of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding sports betting,” general manager Brooks Robinson said in a May 2018 statement. “Keep in mind that Harrah’s Cherokee operates under conditions set forth by (the) gaming compact established between Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the State of North Carolina. Any change in that agreement is a subject that can only be addressed by the Tribe.”

Efforts to reach Robinson for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.

For the ACC, the implications of legalized gambling are both procedural and financial. While the conference wrestles with the ethical implications of potentially benefiting from gambling on its games – whether that’s through direct payments from gambling operators in the form of an “integrity fee” or indirect payments via sponsorships – there are compliance and legal issues that have to be addressed as students (and athletes) attain the right to wager on these events. Some of that is already in place because of ongoing illegal gambling and the point-shaving and game-fixing events that have checkered the past of the ACC and some of its schools.

But the continuing introduction of legalized gambling raises issues not easily addressed, and the potential arrival of wagering in the ACC’s home state, even if limited at this point to the two Indian casinos, will only limit the window the conference has to address them.

For ACC — and others — sports gambling ruling will bring inevitable, irrevocable change

As legal sports gambling arrives, the ACC is not placing any bets of its own

Colin Campbell of the NC Insider contributed.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.