Sports Betting Laws In The United States


Sports betting laws in the United States are changing rapidly. While wagering on sports has long been an American tradition, many folks have been under the impression that the activity is largely against the law. Well, that used to be true; however, on May 14, 2018, the US Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA, 1992), lifting the ban on states being able to establish their own sports wagering industries. No longer does Nevada (primarily Las Vegas) have a monopoly on legal sports betting in the country and states are finally free to set up their own betting rules and regulations. Many already have.

However, this isn’t to say that there still aren’t a couple of federal laws related to sports wagering – there are. These laws include the Interstate Wire Act (1961) and the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA, 2006) remain in full effect. Fortunately, though, these laws are virtually toothless when it comes to actually impeding US residents from betting on sports, as you will find out below. All in all, after decades of limitations and black-market/gray-market bookies, sports betting has finally come out into the light, and there’s no looking back. Still, it is wise to familiarize yourself with the existing federal laws, as an informed bettor always has the edge!

PAPSA – The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act

PASPA, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, was passed in 1992 and went into effect on January 1, 1993. This law, since its inception to its ultimate SCOTUS overturn, has long been the sole real hurdle for eager American sports bettors. In practice, PASPA essentially allowed Nevada to have a total monopoly on single-game sports betting (aka full-service sports betting or “Vegas-style” sports betting). Given the overwhelming popularity of sports betting in the US, PASPA was a financial catastrophe. Not only did the law basically bankrupt major casino districts like those in Atlantic City, NJ, and Biloxi, MS, PASPA actually cost the government (both state and federal) an estimated $400-500 billion a year in taxable expenditure. It is not a stretch to suggest that during the law’s existence (1992-2018), PASPA has cost the state hundreds of billions of dollars (if not trillions of dollars) in potential tax revenue. Of all the sports betting laws in the United States throughout its history, PASPA was by far the biggest, most obvious mistake.

During PASPA’s reign, Nevada – the only legal bastion for real sports wagering – was estimated to receive only 1-3% of the total sports betting handle turned by US bettors. The rest of that action was either going underground or being sent to offshore sportsbooks (which, despite PASPA and other US anti-gambling laws, were and are able to operate legally, as they are based overseas and outside of US jurisdiction). Naturally, PASPA has been something of a massive financial boondoggle for the US, and now that the law is overturned, there is hope that much of that action being sent overseas can be recovered and kept in the US economy. As for the lingering effects of PASPA? Good riddance to bad rubbish!

Read Our Article: What Is Papsa?

UIGEA – Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA) was written to deter US financial institutions from processing payments related to Internet gambling. Included in the SAFE Port Act 2006, the UIGEA is a provision that requires banks and other payment processors to monitor designated payment systems such as cards, checks, and bank wires for “restricted transactions”, While the UIGEA will make it more difficult when using your Visa or MasterCard to make a deposit at an online sportsbook, there are certain sites that have higher success rates than others. Like most federal sports betting laws, the UIGEA only applies to businesses and not the individuals placing bets.

While the UIGEA sounds scary and intimidating, it doesn’t actually do much to stop “unlawful Internet gambling”. That’s probably because most of the gambling it actually addresses isn’t unlawful in the first place, given that offshore sportsbooks accessible over the Internet do not constitute illegal bookmakers. The law is further neutered by the advent of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which allow bettors to fund their accounts and receive payouts without ever going through a banking service on either end. All in all, the UIGEA is the poster child for ineffective legislation to address nonexistent problems. Hopefully, the law will be eradicated in due time, but until then, if you ever have a card declined while trying to fund your sports betting account, simply wait a bit and try again, use a different card (like an Internet Visa prepaid/gift card), or just use Bitcoin or another supported altcoin. Indeed, there is some debate about the origin of Bitcoin itself, with many analysts claiming that the catalysts for its creation were the strict sports betting laws in the United States.

Read Our Article: What Is The UIGEA

The Interstate Wire Act

The Interstate Wire Act (also called the Federal Wire Act, the Interstate Anti-Crime Act, or simply the Wire Act) was a piece of legislation signed into law in 1961 by former president John F. Kennedy at the behest of his brother Robert F., who was the US Attorney General at the time. Sold to the public as a means to stop the proliferation of mafia-related numbers rackets across state borders, the real impetus for the very first of the US sports betting laws was to stop sports gambling and underground lotteries from competing with state-sanctioned lotteries. Naturally, the states could not abide competition in this arena, as their own lotteries provided huge amounts of income to fund their programs and schemes.

The way that the Wire Act seeks to curb unlawful interstate gaming is to make it illegal to use wire communications (hence the law’s name) to accept sports wagers or other kinds of bets over things like telephones and telegraph systems. Indeed, semaphore is even outlawed! Naturally, with the advent of the Internet, this new communications form, traveling over wires, was also covered by the Wire Act, as is wireless wagering in our modern times. In 2011, the US DOJ stated that the Wire Act applied only to sports wagering. However, in 2018, the same US DOJ stated that the Wire Act does in fact apply to other forms of gambling, as well.

The only real effect of the Wire Act now, however, is that it prevents residents in one state from picking up the phone or logging onto the Internet to place a sports bet in another state. This is called geo-fencing, and even the casino and sports betting apps in Nevada are bound by GPS to only allow those physically in the state to place wagers. This problem, of course, doesn’t exist with legal offshore sportsbooks, as they operate entirely outside of the reach of US laws, and the Wire Act conveniently applies only to bookies, not individual bettors. That’s why these overseas books exist and continue to thrive.

Read Our Article: What Is The Wire Act?

Proposed Federal Gambling Laws

As if there weren’t already enough sports betting laws in the United States (even one is too many), there have been two bill proposals that – while not new – have been popping up in and around Congress the last few years. One of these, RAWA, could still have legs in the current climate, but the other, the GAME Act, is likely close to death due to the PASPA overturn. That said, if the federal government wishes to make sweeping sports betting regulations despite no need for such oversight (as evidenced by the states that have already easily implemented their own sports wagering markets), the GAME Act, or some variant of it, could make a fourth-quarter comeback.

RAWA – The Restoration of America’s Wire Act

The Restoration of America’s Wire Act, or RAWA, was designed to strengthen and broaden the Wire Act after the DOJ ruled in 2011 that the law only applied to sports betting. While this received some notable support in the legislature after its initial proposal in 2014 (co-sponsored by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Utah representative Jason Chaffetz), the bill gained no support and never advanced.

The necessity for RAWA, in effect, at least temporarily obviated when the DOJ, in 2018, reversed course, stating that the original Wire Act did indeed apply to all common forms of gambling. This, it seems, has deprioritized the issue, albeit a DOJ statement is not nearly as binding as an official law (and, as shown, can be reversed at any time). Lobbyist and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was the main driving force behind RAWA, as online gambling threatens his land-based casino interests.

GAME Act – Gaming Accountability and Modernization Enhancement Act

Introduced by Representative Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), the GAME Act was intended to effectively repeal and replace PASPA. Introduced in 2017 as HR 4530, the GAME Act sought to return to the states their rights to legislate their own sports betting rules. There were other considerations involved, namely a passage codifying daily fantasy sports (DFS) as “gambling,” which the DFS lobby is vehemently against. Needless to say, the Supreme Court overturn of PASPA temporarily derailed the GAME Act, though it may come about if the federal government wishes to regulate gaming nationwide. Hopefully, the states – which all now have total gambling sovereignty – will resist any efforts to bring sports betting back under the umbrella of the US government.

Read Our Article: What Is The GAME Act?

Sports Betting Laws By State

Most states (all of them except Nevada, Oregon, Montana, and Delaware) used to be bound by the same sports wagering prohibitions set forth by PASPA. However, now that each state is free to make its own rules for wagering on athletic contests, you can expect a host of divergent laws to apply, depending on where you are. Analyzing the sports betting laws by state is something that you will have to do if you plan on hitting the road to do some sports wagering in the future. But that’s OK, because – while the laws might vary a bit – all the states with sports betting (or those pending sports betting legislation) will generally follow the same mold. In most cases, you can expect the legal minimum age to bet on sports at these venues to be 21, and you can expect land-based wagering to launch before Internet sports betting follows suit.

If you don’t want to do the research and just want to get to the bets, however, you should use a legal offshore sportsbook. These sites operate in all 50 states (with very limited exceptions, in the case of Bovada), and they’re as good as or better than any land-based venue you’re likely to come across. Really, the only reason to bet on sports at a brick-and-mortar book is to soak up the ritzy atmosphere of the casino and to watch the games in its sports betting lounge. If you simply want to wager and get on with your day (or night), then don’t worry about any sports betting laws in the United States and simply sign up at an overseas Internet sportsbook.

States With Legal Sports Betting (Land-Based)

  • Nevada
  • Delaware
  • New Jersey
  • Mississippi
  • West Virginia
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • New Mexico
  • Arkansas
  • New York
  • Illinois (pending)
  • Indiana (pending)
  • Iowa (pending)
  • New Hampshire (pending)
  • North Carolina (pending)
  • Connecticut (pending)
  • Washington DC (pending)
  • Montana (pending)
  • Oregon (pending)

States With Legal Sports Betting (Online)

  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • Mississippi (on casino grounds only)
  • Illinois (pending)
  • Indiana (pending)
  • Iowa (pending)
  • Rhode Island (pending)
  • Delaware (pending)
  • New Hampshire (pending)
  • Montana (pending)
  • Oregon (pending)
  • Tennessee (pending)

States Currently Considering Sports Betting Legalization

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana*
  • Maine*
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri*
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Virginia*
  • Washington

* States that gave legal sports betting a serious consideration and are expected to be the next wave of sports betting legalization.