Sunday, April 14

Don’t bet on it. Gambling on the Super Bowl is illegal in California.

Sports betting is a gargantuan industry, with more than $92 billion wagered since the Supreme Court ruled in May 2018 that states could allow it. That’s why if you’ve watched any NFL games on TV this year, you’ll have seen almost as many ads for online gambling sites as you have for beer and trucks.

Let’s get one thing straight up front, though: betting on the Super Bowl at those sites (or any other sport played by humans that doesn’t ride horses at a licensed racetrack) is illegal in California. Even if it’s legal in your home state, if you’re coming to Los Angeles for Super Bowl LVI, you can’t legally place a bet on the game at a US-licensed sports book while you’re here.

However, for many Californians, the legal restrictions are simply a bump in the road. An unpublished 2019 study estimated that Californians made $15.7 billion from sports bets, whether with friends, bookmakers or overseas sites.

Hence the countless commercials promoting betting sites, along with talk on TV and radio about point spreads and favourites.

According to the California Attorney General’s office, state law “generally prohibits gambling on the results of contests between animals and/or people (including sporting events).” The only exceptions are state lottery and licensed gambling halls, tribal casinos, and horse racing.

You will note here that the prohibition applies to “contest results”. That’s one of the reasons fantasy teams and sweepstakes (competition from companies like Fan Duel and Draft Kings) can legally accept money from people in California, even though the games they offer involve gambling. (The companies also argue that fantasy contests are games of skill, not chance, and some researchers and state legislatures agree.)

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“California state law is probably the broadest in the country” when it comes to restricting gambling, said I. Nelson Rose, a gaming law scholar and professor emeritus at Whittier College. “It makes it a crime, a misdemeanor, to accept, register or even place a bet on a sporting event. Obviously, no one ever gets arrested for betting on sporting events. But it is clearly against the law.”

Federal laws, such as the Illegal Internet Gambling Enforcement Act and the Illegal Gambling Business Act, prohibit gaming sites from operating in states that prohibit gambling. In 2011 and 2012, federal prosecutors brought charges against four major foreign online poker sites, successfully prosecuting several of their executives. Three of the companies are still in business, although they have stayed out of states where online poker is not legal.

The 2018 Supreme Court ruling dramatically changed the tide and now 30 states have at least some types of legal sports betting within their borders. In California, however, legislation to create a regulated online gambling industry has stalled amid wrangling between the state’s gambling halls, its tribes, sports leagues and Nevada casinos over what to allow and where to allow it California voters are likely to see one or more initiatives on that issue this November sponsored by various special interests.

The 2018 ruling has also lured some of Las Vegas’s most famous casino operators into the online sports betting business. However, Rose said they still have to comply with the Federal Wire Communications Act, a law enacted to help then-Attorney. General Robert Kennedy cracks down on organized crime gambling operations. The Wire Communications Act prohibits the use of telephone or telegraph lines to transmit sports betting or wagering information across state lines, regardless of whether the betting is legal.

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As a consequence, companies like Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts had to set up separate sports betting sites in each state where sports betting is legal, and then accept bets only from people in those states. If you are a California resident and try to place a bet at one of these casino sites, you will not be immediately shown the pages where you can bet on the games. Instead, Caesars will invite you to bet on fantasy sports, and MGM will suggest you travel to a nearby state where gambling is legal.

However, it doesn’t take an online search wizard to find places online that will gladly take a Californian’s bets. These are foreign sites, often based in Latin America or the Caribbean, and they claim that California law does not apply to them. They accept cryptocurrencies, which are traded anonymously, and at least some of them even accept credit card payments from Californians, which federal law appears to prohibit.

Jeff Ifrah, a gambling law expert who heads a trade association for regulated online gaming companies, doesn’t buy the argument that offshore sites can legally accept sports bets from Californians. “The feds, of course, still have the authority to go after sports betting abroad,” Ifrah said.

Stephen M. Hart, a Phoenix attorney who specializes in gaming law, said the key factor isn’t where the sportsbook’s servers are, but where the bets are placed. “As long as the bet is made here in California, California has jurisdiction,” Hart said. “The authority of a state does not stop at the border, when the state is played.”

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Federal court rulings back that up. For example, Rose pointed to a 2018 ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals holding that a tribal reservation’s online bingo game violated the federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act when it accepted wagers from players within the state jurisdiction.

Offshore sportsbooks may be counting on the isolation of distance to protect them from persecution. “Practically speaking,” Hart said, “it’s very difficult for California law enforcement officers to travel the world enforcing the law.”

But if you place bets there, Ifrah warned, “your bet or wager may be unsafe because it is being placed with an operator that is acting illegally and is not regulated.”

That is the main problem for bettors when they send their money abroad. If there is a problem with your account or your bets (wins not being recorded, funds vanishing or terms not being respected), there is no authority that can help you. “There is nowhere to go, apart from a media forum or a complaint center,” Ifrah said.

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