Atlanta Pro Team Owners Frustrated That Georgia Legislature Botched Sports Betting

Written By Brant James on June 24, 2022 - Last Updated on July 10, 2022
Legalized Sports Betting Wanted Now From Atlanta Pro Team Owneres

Top executives of the major Atlanta-based professional sports teams are annoyed and disillusioned that the Georgia Legislature failed to legalize sports betting in the session that ended in April.

This, according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where the leaders of the Falcons, Braves, Hawks, and United used words like “disappointed” and “frustrating” to describe what they see as a loss of a revenue stream that their peers in 15 other states are currently exploiting.

“One hundred percent, it will be a competitive disadvantage,” Hawks CEO Steve Koonin told the AJC.

“Look at Tennessee. Look at Indiana. We are a bigger state, and I do believe we are falling behind.”

In Tennessee – which has a population of 7 million, compared to Georgia’s 11 million – mobile sports betting was launched in 2020 as a compromise with factions that haven’t allowed casinos or retail sportsbooks in the state.

The Nashville-based Titans (BetMGM) and Predators (DraftKings, Bally’s), and Memphis Grizzlies (FanDuel, WynnBET) all have partnerships with national sportsbook brands.

In Indiana (population 6.7 million), the Colts (Caesars, WynnBET), Pacers (DraftKings, PointsBet), and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Caesars) have done the same.

The Braves, Hawks, Falcons, and United all have sponsor deals currently with Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort in North Carolina. Koonin told the AJC that gambling sponsorships would likely become a top 10 sponsorship category.

Georgia sports betting bill passed by Senate, but House couldn’t muster its own in 2022

The legalization of sports betting in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi proved that it was possible in the culturally conservative South. While Republicans generally create movement in states, it’s become enough of a bipartisan revenue-generating issue to avoid nonstarter status in polarized American politics.

As Georgia’s politics hewed from red to purple in recent years, sports betting remained a promising prospect for industry observers at the beginning of the 2022 session.

The Senate passed a bill that would have allowed for only sports betting, but numerous House bills never got a floor vote as rancor continued over what type and in what form gambling should expand in Georgia.

Legalizing an expansion of gambling was always going to be difficult. Doing so requires two-thirds of the House and Senate to first agree to place a proposed constitutional amendment before voters statewide. A majority vote is then required to amend.

A 2020 AJC poll found that 58% of respondents favored legalizing, specifically, sports betting.

Now, the earliest Georgians could vote to expand gambling – if ever presented with the chance – would be 2024. Legalizing sports betting in Georgia before 2026 would set up a potential windfall ahead of Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosting World Cup matches.

The American Gaming Association estimated that Georgia could generate $6.5 billion in annual handle with a state-wide mobile and online market.

Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay to the AJC:

“We are disappointed because we thought this is something that would pass, something we thought was good for Georgia. And hopefully, when the Legislature gets together next year, it will be something that will pass. I see it as only upside to the state as far as revenue goes. And for us, the upside is fan engagement – connecting with our younger fans and keeping up with other states.”

Calvin-Ridley-suspended
CALVIN RIDLEY

A coalition of like-minded, pro-sports-betting team owners is easier to maintain in Atlanta because Arthur Blank owns both the Falcons and United, and he’s on board. McKay said the two organizations would collectively regroup and formulate new strategies ahead of the 2023 session.

The Atlanta team’s public relations effort was hurt in March when Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for the entire 2022 season for betting on NFL games while on personal leave.

Ridley’s discovery and punishment – he reportedly used a sports betting app in Florida in November – actually proves that fail-safes designed to maintain integrity in sports work.

But even with pro sports leagues and the mainstream public embracing gambling more every year as an adult form of entertainment, stigmas over game-fixing and illegal betting remain vivid a century after the Black Sox Scandal and the downfall of Pete Rose.

Falcons president and CEO Derek Schiller to the AJC:

“The Braves are taking a step back and just trying to understand what’s the best way to go about this. There is no doubt the desire is as strong, if not stronger, than it was three years ago, but we’ve approached this basically in a similar way for three years now and have had the same outcome. So I think we’d be foolish not to try to think about what we can do differently. I don’t have that answer.”

Photo by Associated Press / Brant James Illustration
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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY, ESPN.com, SI.com.

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