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Grammer: Allowing Lobo, Aggie wagering is a good bet

Patrons at Isleta Casino are now able to bet on a variety of sports ranging from Major League Baseball games to UFC fights and even wager on UNM Lobo and NMSU Aggie football and men’s basketball games. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)


Stevin Smith was in a hole.

He owed his campus bookie, Benny Silman, around $10,000 and needed a way out.

For most college students, that would mean a whole lot of credit card debt or some badly injured knee caps, or so the legend of sports gambling goes.

But as a college shooting guard with fringe NBA-level talent playing for the 1993-94 Arizona State Sun Devils, Smith thought he saw another way out.

He agreed with Silman to fix games. Not lose them, but just not win them by as many points as the Las Vegas, Nev., point spreads were predicting.

Long story short, a three-game swing of ASU games in late January 1994 led to a more than $5 million in ASU betting wins through wagers made at a number of legal sportsbooks across Las Vegas, Nev., according to a book written by Joseph Gagliano, who was involved in financing the scheme.

But nothing is that easy.

And when the game switched from the court of a campus bookie to legal Nevada sportsbooks, the chances of such foul play going unnoticed flew out the window.

Red flags raised by legal sportsbooks led to a federal investigation, and convictions.

“The ASU scandal came to light because people were making wagers in legal sportsbooks,” Jay Kornegay, Vice President of Sports Operations at the Westgate in Las Vegas told the Journal. “Things like that actually don’t happen when you have legal betting. Transparency is the name of the game and you want to know who’s making the bets. The last thing anyone should want is to drive (sports betting) underground where nobody knows who is involved.”

• • •

Last week, Isleta Resort & Casino south of Albuquerque opened its sportsbook operation and raised the eyebrows of some around the state by having the audacity to accept college football and college basketball wagers on both of New Mexico’s major in-state, Division I programs — the University of New Mexico Lobos and New Mexico State Aggies.

UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez was quick to express his concern, and he and NMSU AD Mario Moccia were both a bit surprised by the move. You see, since a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the door for sports betting across the country, including at New Mexico’s tribal casinos, no other casino had allowed the Lobos and Aggies to be bet upon.

But why not?

By 2019, one would hope we’re all long past the naive days of thinking the multi-billion sports betting industry only takes place in Sin City and hasn’t already been exposed to Lobo and Aggie players.

The NCAA has long been opposed to legalized sports betting, mainly because its members don’t get a cut of the action, though they would tell you it’s all about the integrity of the sports. NCAA president Mark Emmert and others employ scare tactics about the chance of it hurting the integrity of the game, though they can’t back up any such claims and seem fine with such concerns should schools get a “integrity fee” from the sportsbooks.

The truth is, a 2016 NCAA report revealed that 11 percent of surveyed FBS football players and five percent of Division I men’s basketball players admitted to not only gambling on sports, which is a huge no-no in college athletes, but to betting on the very sports they play, albeit not on their own teams.

Even assuming those numbers are accurate and not on the low side, that would mean UNM and NMSU have, on average, about nine scholarship football players a season and about one every season or two in men’s hoops already betting with either an illegal bookie or through an offshore online account.

The fact that Isleta is offering UNM and NMSU games — games already being offered to the rest of the betting world — doesn’t actually expose local athletes to anything they weren’t already exposed to.

In fact, it might help curb the risk.

“If the games are not offered through legal, regulated sports betting companies I believe that there is more risk for the schools,” said Jay Rood, the Albuquerque native and NMSU graduate who until this spring ran the sportsbook operations for all the MGM Resorts properties in Nevada and across the country.

• • •

Both Kornegay and Rood, who now works for Bet.Works, say they cannot recall ever having an issue taking wagers on UNLV Rebels or Nevada Wolf Pack games, which have been on the betting board since 2001 when Sen. John McCain picked a fight with the sports gambling industry trying to make illegal any betting on college sports.

McCain pointed out the “hypocrisy” of the industry accepting wagers on college sports, but not on their in-state teams. So, the industry put UNLV and Nevada on the board and hasn’t had an issue since.

It is “reverse thinking,” Kornegay said, to assume UNM and NMSU games won’t be bet on if Isleta doesn’t make those games available. Taking those teams off the board actually just pushes all those wagers underground, which makes it harder then to identify when something fishy is going on with bets on those games.

• • •

Still, I don’t blame Nuñez for publicly expressing concern and even suggesting this will lead to the need for more money for compliance staff at UNM to monitor all the “new” betting going on locally.

He should always seek new money as the leader of a cash-strapped athletic department facing the financial challenges UNM and NMSU face to keep up with the rest of college athletics.

Good luck getting anywhere with that.

New Mexico’s Tribal Gaming Compact is in effect until 2037 and is structured to funnel a portion of net wins to the state’s general fund (about $60 million per year), but only from slot machines. Current law has all table-game and sports wagering profits staying in house.

So, unless all those state legislators who have been eager recently to voice opinions about UNM and NMSU’s financial issues can convince tribal leadership to amend the gaming compact before 2037, I’m guessing the Lobos and Aggies won’t be getting any piece of the sports betting action any time soon.

As unfortunate as that may be, lets not pretend it means legalized sports betting in our own backyard — even on our local teams — is a bad thing.

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