The historical linchpin of Texas’ economy, oil, was built on speculation. The phrase “strike it rich” has its very origin in mining for crude (and gold), just as the term “wildcatter” has never been associated with a wariness of risk.
With its passion for pigskin and biggest-state-in-the-lower-48 swagger, one would assume Texas would want a proportionately large cut of the action when it comes to legal sports wagering. But so far, despite a multimillion-dollar lobbying and advertising push by the late Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. during Texas’ 2021 legislative session, efforts to legalize sports betting and casino games in America’s second most populous state have yet to receive so much as a cursory committee vote.
Which raises the question: Just why is a state known for its pistol-packing panache so gun-shy when it comes to legitimizing gambling?
Sports Handle interviewed several political observers for this article — on and off the record — and most agreed that evangelical conservatives still hold enough sway in Texas’ legislature to thwart any effort to legalize sports betting in the near term.
“The religious right does a very good job of winning Republican primaries in Texas,” said R.G. Ratcliffe, a longtime political writer in the state, most prominently with Texas Monthly. “The best chance that the gambling interests have of getting passage of anything in Texas is to have an economic downturn. What the gambling interests were betting on this last session is it looked like we were going to have a huge economic downfall due to COVID. But they didn’t have the financial crisis everyone thought they were going to have, so it kind of fell flat.
“A lot of people who have an interest in expanding gambling in Texas are also big-money donors to statewide politicians,” he continued. “But it didn’t happen when Joe Straus was Speaker [of the House] and his family had a longtime role in horse racing. So it’s hard to see anything happening on that front, short of a paradigm shift in the political atmosphere. I don’t see it happening until probably about 2030.”
Mattress Mack bets the over
Ratcliffe’s forecast falls in line with that of Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, the philanthropic Houston furniture mogul who’s become the state’s best-known sports gambler by virtue of his heavy out-of-state hedge bets.
“My thinking is it’s at least 10 years out,” said McIngvale, who made headlines last month by traveling to Colorado and betting a total of $2 million on the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl at odds of 23/1. “There are a lot of religious groups that don’t like gambling. Obviously, we’ve got lottery here, which is contradictory. Until the state needs money, I don’t think there’ll be much of a push for sports betting or casinos. If I had to bet the over/under, I’d bet over 10 years.”
Another astute observer who agreed to speak on background said that while the religious right is indeed powerful in Texas, the fact that the 2021 legislation even received a hearing in the state’s House of Representatives represents progress. And were it not for the dual catastrophes of COVID and last February’s failure of Texas’ electrical grid due to unprecedented winter weather, the push to legalize sports betting may have gotten further in a state where the legislature only convenes every other year. (Its next session will come in 2023.)
“Even though it didn’t pass, it was positive,” Rep. Dan Huberty told Sports Handle this past June. “It was an educational experience for members of the legislature for what the Supreme Court did in 2018 and how many other states are doing it — that the economics of it are a long-term positive. It’s the first time in many, many years there’s an open dialogue in the state of Texas, including the discussion of destination and resort gambling.
“Oftentimes in Texas, after you introduce legislation, it takes a while to get things done.”
Texas ‘more diversified than you think’
It should be said that Texans and their elected officials don’t necessarily see eye to eye on the legalization of gambling. According to a somewhat recent Dallas Morning News/University of Texas-Tyler poll, 57% of Texas residents want casino gambling, while 43% support legal sports betting. Specific to casino gambling, 29% are opposed to it and 13% are ambivalent. As for sports betting, 26% are opposed and 31% are ambivalent.
Perhaps most interestingly, evangelicals accounted for 44% of the sports betting supporters in the poll, as well as 52% of those who supported legal casinos.
“It has nothing to do with religion,” said Fred Faour, a longtime sports media personality and avid gambler. “I guarantee you that if you put it to a vote of the people, it would pass. Texas is huge. There are a lot of different perspectives. Where I live in downtown Houston, it’s extremely liberal. But if I drive five miles outside the city, I’m in Trump country. It’s hard to say Texas is this and Texas is that, because we’re a lot more diversified than you think. You do that vote in Houston? Oh yeah, we could gamble. In Midland or Odessa? Maybe not.”
Problem is, the only way sports betting — or anything — can be put to Texas voters is if their legislators send it to them in the form of a ballot measure. Specific to sports betting, that would entail passage of a proposed constitutional amendment which would have to go through Austin, whereas other states allow for citizens’ initiatives that can circumvent elected officials provided they get the requisite amount of valid signatures.
“For all those people on the West Coast who are thinking of moving to Texas, just know you have no representation,” said Faour, who recounted a recent trip to a Louisiana casino near the Texas border where he “saw 105 Texas license plates and five from Louisiana.”
But what about the under?
All that legal gambling money flowing across state lines instead of into Texas’ economy and tax coffers helps explain why Faour still thinks sports betting legislation has a chance to pass in 2023. Add in the fact that legal sports betting is supported by the state’s major pro franchises, some of which have already partnered up with speculative sportsbook operators, and you might be able to talk yourself into taking the under on Mattress Mack’s proposition.
Well this is an interesting addition to the fan experience. Spurs and bet365 are introducing a free-to-play in-game concept for the TV and AT&T Center audience. Basically live betting system that allows you to build credits and win prizes, but since it’s free, not gambling. pic.twitter.com/cZ3H6KkTXy
— Matthew Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) October 18, 2021
When asked if he thought the money and momentum behind legal sports betting in Texas would eventually win out, Houston Press sportswriter and radio host Sean Pendergast replied, “I absolutely think so. It’s a sports-crazed state with the most popular betting sport. Florida and Texas are neck and neck as far as the big football meccas. I absolutely think there will be people looking at this and saying, ‘We need our piece of the pie.’ And I think people are starting to realize it’s not the devil.”
Pendergast, who hosts the Houston Texans’ pre- and post-game shows, added, “The more [sports betting content] gets embedded into regular programming, I probably get five times, maybe 10 times more messages from people that listen to my show asking, ‘Where do I go bet?’ I got very few of those before. That’s my version of the Gallup Poll on this whole thing.
“I don’t know what politicians will be saying about this two years from now, but in my world, I get way more messages — there’s just a far bigger general curiosity about it because it’s become more acceptable. In my world, which is interacting with the people who would push politicians to act on it, there’s considerable momentum.”