Americans love to gamble. According to the American Gaming Association (AGA), more than $2.57 billion was legally wagered in Nevada sports books last year, resulting in $136.4 billion in gross revenues. Nearly two-thirds of that total came from bets on professional, non-college sporting events, the AGA notes. What's more, Christiansen Capital Advisors, which monitors internet gambling, reported that online sports betting topped $4.2 billion in 2005, more than double the amount wagered in 2001.

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Betting Under the Table
Yet, most of the money wagered on sports doesn't come with a receipt - or the backing of the U.S. government. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates that more than $2.5 billion is illegally wagered on the NCAA March Madness Basketball Tournament each year, dwarfing the estimated $80 million to $90 million that sports book operators say is legally wagered on the tourney in Nevada.

Although the Super Bowl, which generates more betting interest than any other sporting event, typically lures more than $80 million in legal Nevada wagers, that only represents 1.5% of the total betting on the big game, the AGA asserts. In fact, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission projected that illegal sports wagers approach $380 billion annually. That's about as much as the current U.S. trade deficit. Not surprisingly, some states, like New Jersey, would like to get their hands on that illicit pie. (People often compare stocks to gambling, but how close are they really? Find out, in Going All-In: Comparing Investing And Gambling.)

The Political Influence
New Jersey state Senator Jeff Van Drew told the New York Times, "Sports betting is a good opportunity to remain competitive. We know that there's going to be increased competition. And this is an opportunity for Atlantic City to offer an activity that's unique."

Despite a fresh Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll that showed overwhelming 63% support for legalized sports betting in Atlantic City casinos, however, actually being able to plunk down a Benjamin on the outcome of the Lakers-Celtics game is still a long way off, some say. Gaming Industry Observer Publisher Michael Pollock observed in the Times, "The industry would certainly welcome it, but my sense is it's largely viewed as somewhat quixotic."

One windmill that recently proved unassailable is the state of Delaware. According to the Times, "officials from the state's three combination racetracks and casinos pushed for sports betting last year," arguing that sports betting would draw about $150 million in wagers annually. "But Delaware's governor, Ruth Ann Minner, was opposed, and religious groups and major league sports officials rallied against it, and the discussion died."

Beyond the money that is wagered, proponents of legalized sports betting contend that sports betting boosts tourism and buoys other businesses as well. Now that's a good line. (We show you why some of these companies stand apart from the herd, in Spotting Cash Cows.)

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