Will Alabama gamble on sports?

Mississippi rakes in millions during first year
Updated: Mar. 18, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
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(WAFF) - You’ll be paying more to fill up soon, since state lawmakers approved a gas tax increase this month. Governor Ivey signed the bill, saying the state needs more money to fix its roads and bridges.

Yet, one of Alabama’s neighbors is also raising hundreds of millions of dollars, but without a tax hike.

“Your team. Our turf!” That’s the sales pitch Alabamians are getting from across the Mississippi line.

Courtesy Gold Strike Casino
Courtesy Gold Strike Casino

You may cheer for the Tide or Tigers, but to bet on them legally, you have to drive three or four hours to a place like Tunica, Mississippi.

Gold Strike Sports Book
Gold Strike Sports Book

Webster Franklin, the President and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau said, “We’ve been very successful in drawing that drive traffic. The Alabama market has consistently been a good market for us.”

In May of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal ban on sports betting was unconstitutional. We asked Huntsville attorney Mark McDaniel how this federal ruling affects individual states.

McDaniel told us, “The US Supreme Court said, they struck that law down, under the 10th amendment, that should be a state’s rights issue. So, it’s up to the states to decide if they’re going to have sports betting.”

It didn’t take long for Mississippi to react. Tourism executives were ready to seize on what they say is a golden opportunity.

Tunica, MS
Tunica, MS

Franklin said, “Mississippi was one of five states due to the law passed by the Supreme Court that allowed us to open early. So, we were first in on sports betting. And, it’s really been a boon to our economy here locally.”

Sports betting became legal in Mississippi at the start of August. During the very first month, it generated $7.7 million. Franklin added, “Mississippi has 82 counties. 8 percent of all the revenue generated here goes to the general fund and our legislators in Jackson get to distribute that.”

During the 2018 fiscal year, which didn’t even include sports gambling (since it wasn’t legal yet), gaming revenues were $2.12 billion in Mississippi. That also meant almost $250 million in tax revenue for state and local governments.

Gold Strike Sports Book
Gold Strike Sports Book

With Alabama in desperate need of infrastructure funding, some are asking, if Mississippi can do it, what can’t Alabama? During his campaign for governor, Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox supported legalized sports gambling. Maddox argued it could help pay for more state troopers, better mental health care and a less crowded prison system. State Auditor Jim Zeigler says, Alabama is the number one state in the country for illegal betting on football. Zeigler asked, why not legalize something that’s already happening, so the state can benefit from much needed tax revenue?

Yet, other lawmakers are skeptical. Congressman Robert Aderholt is concerned about the effect sports betting could have on student-athletes. He also worries many people would go deep into debt, betting on sports.

The President and COO of Gold Strike in Tunica is telling a much different story. David Tsai says, by legalizing sports gaming in Mississippi, the negative stereotypes of gambling started to fade away.

Gold Strike COO David Tsai talks to WAFF-TV
Gold Strike COO David Tsai talks to WAFF-TV

“A lot of customers are already betting sports and now we’re able to do it in a safe, regulated environment and to show there’s game integrity.”

Melvin Macklin is a regular at the sports book in Tunica. He makes the trip from Memphis twice each week, saying he feels safer making bets in a place where it’s legal.

Melvin Macklin Gold Strike Customer
Melvin Macklin Gold Strike Customer

Macklin said, “Because you got people illegally betting and they out here getting robbed. And you come down here legally betting and you don’t have to worry about it. Come down here, get your sheet and collect your money safely if you win.”

Despite endorsements like this one, legalized sports betting is still a tough sell in Alabama, one of five states without a lottery. Senator Jim McClendon is getting ready to unveil a lottery proposal that could also pave the way for sports betting. In the end, though, the voters will decide the issue. To legalize sports betting, they will need to change Alabama law through a constitutional amendment.

Tourism leaders like Webster Franklin predict it will happen, eventually.

“Before long, I would say in 3-5 years, every state is going to have some form of sports gaming. Especially now that you have the major sports getting involved with it. They’re not shunning it any longer. You know, MLB, NBA and NFL, they’re all getting involved in different sports books and properties.”

Recent polls show, while there is growing support for a lottery in Alabama, there is still opposition to an expansion of gambling, including sports. Religious leaders worry about the effect it will have on the poor. How do you feel about it? Let’s continue the conversation online and on Facebook.

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