What better way to dive into things like the 2019 NFL season, sports betting — the hottest vice in the US — and New Orleans culture, then having a conversation with someone who has called Louisiana home for the better part of four decades.
Many know Ronnie Jones as the state’s top gaming regulator and the voice of the LA Gaming Control Board. Next week, Jones will embark on his second term as chairman of the gaming board, a position he’s held for the last six years.
But I know him as the wise talking, diehard Saints fan who chases me down every time I’m in New Orleans to make sure I’ve indulged in everything the city has to offer.
I picked up the phone on Monday, and Jones was on the other end barking about how good the Saints look on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“Did you know Teddy Bridgewater is the highest paid back-up quarterback in the league,” he asked.
I told him I did. Bridgewater, the sixth-year man out of the University of Louisville, “gets paid $4 million to hold a clipboard,” I said.
Jones and I spend the first 15 minutes of every phone call talking football. By this point, no conversation is complete without bringing up the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, or his hometown Saints.
What a gaming regulator thinks about football
Every year when football season rolls around, people watch, and people listen. Now that sports betting is legal outside of Nevada, it’s safe to say people are (and will continue to be) engaged even more than before.
A report conducted by the American Gaming Association (AGA) in September said that 38 million American adults — 15% of the US adult population — are planning to bet on NFL games this season.
NFL fans were asked who they would put a $25 bet on to win the Super Bowl and statistics showed the following:
- New England Patriots (23%)
- Kansas City Chiefs (8%)
- Dallas Cowboys (7%)
- New Orleans Saints (6%)
As a season ticket holder, Jones is one of those fans who will live and breathe Saints football for the next six months. However, the man is as superstitious as they come, and maybe it’s all the state’s voodoo magic floating around. Nonetheless, he refused to tell me if the Saints would reach the Super Bowl in February.
“Hope springs eternal,” he said. “It bothered me that there was a lot of Super Bowl talk. Bad things can happen toward the end.”
If the recent injury to star quarterback Drew Brees wasn’t an omen, then I don’t know what is.
Jones is a realist. He knows Brees won’t be suiting up in the black and gold forever. An indicator of how many years Brees has left will be how he bounces back from this pesky thumb injury.
“The older we get, and I know this from being old myself, the longer it takes to heal. The body starts breaking down, and you can only put so much padding on the quarterback before hits start taking a toll,” Jones said.
Jones talks legal gambling in Louisiana
Switching gears to the state’s most lucrative product, I wanted an update on gambling in the Bayou State.
Jones is no pushover regulator that bends to the will of high-powered politicians. In fact, he and his team have managed to piss off everyone associated with the Louisiana gambling industry on several occasions. Most recently being the failed attempt to pass a Louisiana sports betting bill.
He cut his teeth on gaming many years ago. In the ’80s, Jones was shipped out to study the economic effects of Atlantic City casinos by former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Edwards would later be sent to prison for meddling in the gaming industry. Upon his return, Jones and another colleague wrote up a report and delivered it to the governor’s desk.
Since sports betting deals with the state budget, by law, it cannot be addressed until 2021. I asked Jones to walk me through the next couple of years until the issue can be picked up again.
Q & A with Ronnie Jones
The law limits your team, so walk me through the next two years.
Hypothetically, what’s going to happen is someone will introduce the enabling legislation that will call for a public referendum, a vote on sports betting.
Similar to the daily fantasy sports (DFS) vote?
That’s right; theoretically, this time next year on a ballot proposition, there will be a question similar to, “Do you support sports betting in your parish?”
Is it safe to assume that all the parishes that voted yes for DFS will vote yes for sports betting?
What specifically will your team be doing until then?
We will continue to engage with the other states and see what they’re doing right, including any mistakes they have made. We will continue to accumulate information and look at the best regulatory schemes out there, and we’re not above stealing what another state has done.
So that’s in 2020. So when 2021 rolls around, is that when we get a sports betting bill on the floor?
That’s correct. Now I don’t read tea leaves very well, but things can change between now and then.
Will your team be ready once a bill is passed?
We will be ready. We won’t have to wait around six months to develop the regulations. Hell, we were prepared this year!
Is it a fool’s errand to not include mobile sports betting in a bill?
This is my take. I think everyone is going to end up with a mobile component before it’s all said and done. When that question is asked to me by a Louisiana lawmaker, I say, that’s where we want to end up, but you may want to start more conservatively like Mississippi. My concern was, if they jump right in and mobile was part of the legislation, it would likely fail. So I’m looking for that crack in the window we could slip through to get it passed, then maybe move to the next level. But right now, the industry will take what it can get.
How important is gambling to Louisiana?
We were an oil and gas state for years, and gaming has surpassed that. When you factor in the lottery and also everything my board regulates, it’s almost $1 billion in revenue to the state every year. Nobody could ever have anticipated that, and the thing is, it could be more.
Ending on a high note, watching a Saints game in New Orleans
I had to conclude my conversation with Jones on something positive for myself. The Saints are 4-1, the Cowboys appear to be losing their identity, and the Chicago Bears can’t get their act together. Mix that with the depressive notion that Louisiana missed out on sports betting and it makes for a terrible cocktail. Although Louisiana will be living in the shadow of MS sports betting for the next couple of years, Jones and his team will be ready to make up ground once they are given a chance.
So, regardless of your political affiliation, allegiance to any NFL team, or whatever sports betting deity you pray to, Jones offered up some advice on what to do and how to watch football when you come to the Big Easy.
- See the French Quarter: You have to do this early, according to Jones. There will be plenty of liquor and partying to keep you occupied. But get in and get out. “People miss a lot of the essence of the city by spending copious amounts of time on Bourbon Street,” he said. While it’s something that everybody needs to see, Jones says it’s not the end-all to the city.
- Eat How Locals Eat: Go for the artery-clogging southern staples, Jones says. Oysters are a great way to watch a game. “A cocktail, oysters, and french bread, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Jones said. If you’re near the casino, he recommends watching the Saints game at a place called Mannings Sports Bar and Grill. Grab a cold beer and indulge in pork rinds served with house-made pimento spread, “remarkable in their simplicity.” Also, don’t sleep on blue crab deviled eggs and crawfish etouffee fries, neither likely menu options in any other NFL city.
- Embrace the Culture: Jump on the streetcar and take it all the way uptown and back. “No visit to the city is complete without taking in the music scene, whether it’s high-end national talent at the Filmore or bouncing from door to door on Frenchman Street.” Like our food, music is part of the DNA of the city, said Jones.
Louisiana may rely heavily on gambling dollars, but the state is much more than that. One day, retail and mobile sports betting will be integrated into the fabric of New Orleans, whether people want it to or not. But regulators, like Jones, will make sure it doesn’t run wild like Bridgewater on a Sunday night in the Super Dome.