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Illinois still not on board when it comes to betting on local college sports teams

Illinois among states where fans can’t bet on local college teams — for no good reason.

The late John McCain (second from right), a former Arizona senator, watches an Arizona basketball game in 2010. He wanted to ban betting on college sports.
The late John McCain (second from right), a former Arizona senator, watches an Arizona basketball game in 2010. He wanted to ban betting on college sports.
John Miller/AP

LAS VEGAS — In a hush-hush 2000 rendezvous, legendary sports bettor Lem Banker broke bread with Brian Sandoval, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission (NGC).

In a Ruth’s Chris steakhouse booth, they discussed the state’s longtime betting ban on Nevada and UNLV games, a topic that resonates today in Illinois, neighboring states and elsewhere.

Back then, Arizona’s John McCain and fellow senators Jon Kyl (Arizona) and Sam Brownback (Kansas) sought a national collegiate-sports-betting ban, their crosshairs firmly on Nevada.

Jim Livengood, a longtime collegiate administrator who had invited McCain to many Arizona basketball games in Tucson when Livengood served as the Wildcats’ athletic director, recalled that era.

“When those games were off the board . . . that [did] raise questions,” Livengood said. “If it’s so regulated and so above-board, why wouldn’t you have those games on there? That’s why your column will be important.”

In the 1950s, Nevada had made it verboten to wager on Wolf Pack and Rebels games. Late in his life, Banker told me — for a book — that those chalkboard omissions, conspicuous by their absence, would have fueled the McCain faction and the NCAA.

Banker said U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a former NGC chair, was his conduit to Sandoval. Banker implored Sandoval that odds on Nevada and UNLV were no more cause for concern than Notre Dame or Syracuse.

In October 2000, the NGC first discussed the measure in Carson City. Four hearings later, by a 5-0 vote in late January 2001, it became legal to bet on Nevada and UNLV games in the Battle Born State.

No NCAA officials attended a single hearing.

“That was huge,” said Banker, who died at 93 in November. “Thanks to me!”

Livengood believes having legalized sports betting but barring certain aspects of it only arouses suspicion.

“Much of the thinking has been so archaic,” said the 76-year-old Livengood, “with regards to yesterday and today, as we look to tomorrow. It’s yesterday’s thinking for today’s model.

“I’m not sure there are a lot of people who even know that UNLV and Nevada games weren’t on the board, or the McCain thing.”

NO HALFWAY

Livengood also served as the athletic director at Washington State and UNLV, and he once chaired the NCAA Tournament selection committee. That Nevada-UNLV history, he said, is pertinent today in Illinois.

Its residents must drive to Indiana, or Iowa, to place a bet on a Northwestern football game, or an Illinois or DePaul basketball tilt. Such wagers are illegal in the Prairie State.

Someone in Ames, Iowa, must drive to Illinois to make a proposition bet — a player to run for so many yards, say, which is not legal in Iowa — on Iowa State football.

“It raises many questions,” Livengood said. “Is there something we need to be worried about or we should be worried about by not having those local [options] on the board?”

Art Manteris, in his 1991 “SuperBookie” biography, wrote that the Hilton, whose book he ran, and every other Vegas property would have been “slaughtered” in 1990 by a voracious public eager to bet on UNLV, at any spread, against Duke in the NCAA title game.

The Rebels blasted the Blue Devils 103-73. Manteris added that illicit bookies in town regularly put out a UNLV line and took “heavy action” on the Rebels.

Politicos fear cheating scandals, but people seeking action will find it, legally or otherwise, with those nefarious bookies or off-shore sites.

Any restrictions — dubbed “carve-outs” in industry lingo — nullify a legalized sports-betting edict to bring the activity out of the shadows, to legitimize it and earn tax dollars for the state.

Arkansas, Mississippi and Montana, to name a few states, have no such carve-outs.

Jill Dorson, managing editor at industry watchdog SportsHandle, notes that athletic directors have testified about the potential pressures of legal wagering on their student-athletes.

“But the truth is that they’re being wagered on anyway, on the black market or in other states,” she said. “So whatever state it is might as well keep the money at home.”

A bill in the recent Illinois Legislature seeking to remove that in-state ban failed.

“If the goal of legalizing sports wagering is to stamp out the black market, then legalizing wagering on all sports has to happen for the black market to go away,” Dorson said. “There is no halfway.”

NOTHING OFF THE BOARD

For the 21 states and Washington, D.C., that have legal sports betting, business is booming. In March, for the seventh time in eight months, a national record was set when $4.61 billion in sports wagers were recorded.

According to Livengood, though, stark differences will continue to invite speculation.

Several veteran Vegas sportsbook operators have long been amazed how so few politicos from other states, with sports betting on their dockets, have visited their shops to actually learn how they operate.

One said officials from Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi and New Jersey might have visited Vegas to conduct such investigations, but that might be a stretch.

“A large number [of politicos] have no idea how regulated Nevada is, how regulated Las Vegas is,” said Livengood, retired and living in Tucson. “They have no idea because they’ve never been there. But it’s going to be everywhere, and nothing will be off the board.

“Everything will be on the board.”

To whatever degree of his influence, a nod of gratitude to the forward-thinking Lem Banker will be justified.