Wayne Parry / AP
Sunday, June 30, 2019 | 2 a.m.
When former Gov. Chris Christie took New Jersey’s effort to legalize sports betting to the Supreme Court, it was considered a long shot, like betting on the New York Mets to win the World Series.
Although the state did not have a strong connection to sports betting, New Jersey quickly became a crusader for the industry.
Now, a year after the state’s surprising high court victory brought legalized sports betting to any state that wanted it, New Jersey has become the sports betting capital of the country.
Powered by betting on mobile devices and by New Yorkers flooding across the border to place wagers, New Jersey notched a milestone in its rapid rise in the booming sports betting industry.
Bettors wagered more in New Jersey than in any other state in the country during May, edging Nevada and the famed Las Vegas sports books by $1.5 million. New Jersey sports books took in $318.9 million in bets, while Nevada took in $317.4 million.
“It happened a little quicker than we imagined,” said Christie, a Republican who left office last year. “But I had no doubt that we would, just based on demographics and how we structured the thing, that we would do extraordinary.”
Although other states have embraced legalized sports betting since the Supreme Court’s decision, New Jersey has been at the forefront, with racetracks and casinos in Atlantic City opening betting windows within days of Gov. Philip Murphy’s signing the regulations into law. Mobile sports betting apps soon followed.
The results have been staggering, even for bullish industry insiders. In the 12 months since the legalization of sports betting, New Jersey has taken in more than $2.9 billion in sports bets, resulting in nearly $200 million in revenue for multiple sports books.
“It’s not uncommon to have someone bet $100,000 on a game, and that’s been a bit of a surprise to me,” said Jeffrey Gural, the operator of the sports book at the Meadowlands racetrack.
He has seen $5,000 bets placed on a 100-to-1 ticket on a weeknight slate of baseball games; it netted one lucky gambler $500,000. “That was disappointing, for us,” Gural said.
For years, the argument for legalizing sports betting was that it would be a shot of adrenaline for the state’s languishing casinos and horse racing tracks, a new revenue source that would also draw a more consistent, year-round crowd to venues that struggle to subsist largely on summer surges.
While the casino and racing industries still face significant challenges, the owners of the state’s two biggest horse tracks credit sports betting with lifting their fortunes.
“I don’t know how much longer I could have kept that place open losing millions of dollars a year just because I love harness racing,” Gural said of the Meadowlands track. “At some point, you pull the plug. So, it’s helped everybody.”
Sports betting has not been the sole savior for racing. Murphy, a Democrat, approved a $100 million subsidy in February for the state’s horse racing industry, roughly eight months after sports betting was legalized.
Dennis Drazen, the operator of the Monmouth Park racetrack and a central force in the effort to legalize sports betting, said the track most likely would not have been able to make the case for the subsidy without the introduction of sports betting, which showed that the track was viable.
The new wagering business added dozens of jobs at the track for sports betting and additional jobs for security and food and beverage sales.
“It’s put the track on sound fiscal footing,” Drazen said.
In Atlantic City, the impact of sports betting is mixed. Most casinos have seen revenue decline in the year since sports betting was legalized, but that is largely attributable to two new casinos — the Hard Rock and Ocean Resorts — opening last year and diluting business.
Still, sports betting seems to have helped increase the number of visitors to Atlantic City, officials said.
But by far the most popular form of sports betting in New Jersey is not at the tracks and casinos but on smartphones: Roughly 80 percent of the bets are made on mobile devices. Bettors have to be physically in the state to make a sports wager.
“Over the past year, New Jersey has in many ways ascended to the center of the sports betting universe thanks largely to the Garden State’s embrace of mobile technology,” said Jamie Shea, the head of digital sports book operations at DraftKings, a sports fantasy company. “We have taken in over 20 million bets via mobile and paid out over $600 million in New Jersey alone.”
The top four mobile betting locations for DraftKings have all been along the Hudson River across from New York City, underscoring the outsize impact of New Yorkers flooding the New Jersey market.
“I know people who drive to the Vince Lombardi rest station just to make their bets, and then turn around and go back to the city,” Christie said.
Just how long New Jersey can maintain the sports betting crown is unclear. Although sports betting appears to be years away in New York, Pennsylvania recently legalized sports betting.
But for now New Jersey can count on large and dedicated sports fan bases in New York and Philadelphia, which could power it through the summer before football begins.
According to PlayNJ, a website that tracks the industry, bettors in New Jersey have a stronger preference for basketball and baseball than those in Nevada.
And the sports books are feeling the pressure.
“The Yankees are killing us because they win every day, and the Mets are killing us because they lose every day,” Gural said.
Although he pitched sports betting as a business that would benefit the state, Christie has himself become an active bettor. Armed with the DraftKings app, Christie has built up a modest betting nest egg.
“I’m up $1,634.95,” Christie said. “I bet on Tiger Woods for the Masters, that was a big one. I got it at 15-to-1.”
He attributed a large part of his success to avoiding bets on the Mets, his favorite baseball team.
“If you’re betting on anybody but the Mets,” he said, “you’re doing pretty well.”