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Different kind of March madness for NJ without legal sports betting

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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) -

By this time, New Jersey figured it would be raking in the bets on professional and college sports.

But with its bid to offer legal sports betting stalled and relying on a longshot appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the only madness this March will bring to New Jersey is anger that things did not turn out quite the way it had hoped.

A handful of state legislators and Atlantic City's mayor held a news conference Wednesday to tout the benefits of sports betting. But the only nine people who could really help them — the Supreme Court justices — were not in attendance, and not likely to be swayed by the arguments made in an Irish bar near the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

"The world bets on sports; it's just a known fact," said Mayor Don Guardian. "The fact that we can't compete in that game is unfair."

Senate President Steve Sweeney said the start of the NCAA college basketball championship tournament routinely packs Las Vegas casinos. By contrast, on a cold, gray March day in New Jersey, Atlantic City's gambling halls were sparsely populated.

"Right now in Las Vegas, 97 percent of the rooms are booked, hundreds of thousands of people are in the city, spending millions of dollars," he said. "We've been betting on sports since the beginning of time. People are betting on football, baseball, basketball games. If they could bet in ant races, they would. We know that."

But the effort to allow betting on pro and college sports depends on the high court accepting the case and ruling in favor of New Jersey — no sure thing.

Sports betting is legal in only four states that met a 1991 deadline to approve it: Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon. At the time, New Jersey was given the chance to become the fifth state but failed to act during a prescribed window.

The state has been trying to overturn the federal law banning sports betting in the other 46 states since 2009, when a state lawmaker sued the federal government over the ban. Most recently, Gov. Chris Christie decided in 2012 to try to overturn the ban, knowing it would be an uphill fight.

The state's lawsuit against the professional leagues in football, baseball, basketball and hockey, along with the NCAA, has been rebuffed at nearly every turn. The U.S. Justice department joined the litigation on the side of the sports leagues.

New Jersey appealed to the Supreme Court last month, arguing the federal law is unconstitutional because it treats states differently.

No federal law directly prohibits individuals from betting on sports, the state argues. Rather, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act makes it unlawful for a "governmental entity" to license or authorize sports wagering activity. New Jersey argues that Congress has no authority to regulate the approval or disapproval of activities expressed by individual states.

Sweeney said he's not surprised by the failure of the effort thus far, but predicts the state will win the case — if the Supreme Court agrees to hear it. He estimated the odds of that happening at 50/50.

Asked why he was holding such a news conference and who he hoped to influence by having it, when the outcome of the case rests with the Supreme Court, Sweeney replied, "It's not about a press conference. It's about how important this is for the state of New Jersey."

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