In March, the eyes of the South traditionally look to North Carolina to see where Duke or UNC is seeded in the March Madness tournament.
But this March there’s another reason for southern states to be looking at the Tar Heel State: North Carolina online sports betting. Will North Carolina be the next state to expand its gaming industry, and can it help other states take the next step?
Sports betting hesitancy in some southern states
Georgia won’t legalize sports betting or get a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year after its bills recently failed.
However, North Carolina will soon submit sports betting legislation that mirrors bills narrowly defeated last year. Lawmakers and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper are optimistic it will pass this year.
Will Kentucky, South Carolina or Alabama make strides in potentially legalizing sports betting? Florida attempted to launch sports betting through the Seminole Tribe, but it has ended up in court.
If North Carolina legalizes online sports betting, the remaining southern states would have to seriously consider it. Retail sports betting is already legal in North Carolina at three tribal casinos.
North Carolina’s neighbors – Virginia and Tennessee – have thriving online betting markets that keep revenue in their states instead of sending it to illegal offshore companies. And it’s no secret that Virginia and Tennessee see bettors crossing state lines from neighboring states to bet legally.
Where other southern states stand with sports betting
Here’s where other southern states stand with online sports betting:
- Alabama: Although bills might drop this year, legalization doesn’t look likely before 2024. For context, Alabama doesn’t even have a state lottery.
- Georgia: Bills this legislative session would have approved sports betting with or without a constitutional amendment. It didn’t seem to matter as both bills met swift deaths. The Senate’s final sports betting bill failed on March 6, crossover day. The House never heard the bills.
- Kentucky: HB 551 would legalize sports betting and is on the House floor, but the state is in one of its odd-year short sessions. Last year, a bill cleared the House but never got out of committee in the Senate. This year’s House bill would permit retail sports betting at nine horse racing tracks in the state. They each would also get up to three online licenses.
- South Carolina: Legislation will likely be introduced this session to legalize sports betting in the state. The session runs until June. Gov. Henry McMaster opposes sports betting so it could be a fight even if it gets through the Legislature.
- Mississippi: An effort to open the entire state to online sports betting has not gained traction. The next step could be creating a legislative task force to study online sports betting further.
Why North Carolina can be a southern leader
There are strong religious groups in the South that oppose gambling in any form.
One key North Carolina lawmaker who opposed sports betting last year, Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, did not run for reelection. During a House hearing last year, he raised faith as a reason to oppose it.
“The one opinion that matters to me, the one judgment to me that matters, is what does Jesus think?” Pittman said last year. “It’s very clear from his word what he thinks of these two bills, and I’m going to be on his side and vote, ‘no.’ ”
Christopher McLaughlin, professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, told NC Sharp that gambling “has long been a tough sell in the Bible Belt.”
“State lotteries began up north in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the first southern state (Virginia) approved one,” McLaughlin said. “It took a ton of arm twisting and some well-timed legislator absences to get a lottery bill passed 20 years ago in North Carolina. Mississippi didn’t offer a lottery until 2019 and Alabama remains one of three states that still doesn’t offer one. That said, casinos have been popping up in a number of southern states, so the region’s traditional aversion to gambling appears to be weakening.”
North Carolina could be the first state in the South to approve online sports betting this year. Can it become a leader for other southern states to follow?
John Dinan, professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, believes there’s a financial argument to be made for North Carolina acting as the first big southern domino to fall.
“And so that is the main way that state actions affect the actions of neighboring states – when one state adopts a form of gambling this gives gambling supporters in neighboring states an additional argument they can advance: don’t let money be spent out of state when we could keep it in the state,” Dinan said.
North Carolina still has a long way to go before it legalizes sports betting. The state’s new bill hasn’t even been filed. Regardless, other southern states might start feeling the aftershocks if efforts in North Carolina are successful.