Pro teams deliver new pitch for sports gambling to NC lawmakers

With sports betting legislation likely to return next season, the state's pro teams are applying more pressure, explaining to key lawmakers that failure to act could hurt their bottom lines and their ability to compete.

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Brian Murphy
, WRAL sports investigative reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s major professional sports teams pushed hard for state lawmakers to legalize online sports gambling before its narrow defeat earlier this summer. They wrote letters, held in-person meetings with lawmakers and brought famous faces around the legislative building.

Now with the legislation likely to return next season, the teams are applying more pressure, explaining to key lawmakers that failure to act could punish their bottom lines and their ability to compete.

“Before I think it was more of encouragement and how this would be helpful,” said Sen. Jim Perry, a Kinston Republican, who co-sponsored the primary sports gambling bill. “I think the follow up conversations have been, ‘Hey, do you understand you’re putting us at a competitive disadvantage against other teams, other states, other locations?’ I’m not positive that the first round of conversations were in that manner.”

Carolina Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell has been the pro hockey franchise’s point person on the gambling issue. He met with lawmakers in their offices throughout the past year. Waddell, a former player and coach, said he’s learned more about politics in the past six months than he ever thought he would. He said online sports gambling is a competitive issue.

“Compared to a lot of teams, we’re already way behind,” he said. “We can’t compete with all the Canadian cities, the New Yorks, Bostons. We can’t continue to fall further behind.”

The Hurricanes, who advanced to the second round of the NHL playoffs last year, signed a five-year lease extension to remain at Raleigh’s PNC Arena through the 2028-29 season. The National Hockey League has a hard salary cap based on a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue between the players and owners.

“As revenues go up in the league overall, the cap goes up,” Waddell said Thursday after a board meeting of the Centennial Authority, which owns PNC Arena. “But if our revenues don’t increase, now that 50-50 split starts to tilt the other way. For us, it might be 60% going to the players, only 40% going to us.”

The Hurricanes, the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets backed the online sports gambling legislation. Popular former Hornets players Mugsy Bogues and Dell Curry and Hornets team president Fred Whitfield visited with lawmakers previously.

The legislation would have allowed the team’s arenas, plus Charlotte Motor Speedway and golf courses that host PGA Tour events, to operate sports lounges on or near their premises. Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro is hosting the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship this week, and Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club hosts the Wells Fargo Classic annually.

“I don’t think it was in a threatening manner,” Perry said. “They have to be competitive. They need to monetize as much of their facilities as possible.”

Senate Bill 688, Perry’s bill, failed 51-50 in the state House in June, marking the end of a long, contentious process to legalize online sports wagering in the state. A companion bill that contained many changes, Senate Bill 38, passed 51-50 just moments before. An amendment to that legislation stripped college sports gambling out of the legislation, a significant blow to supporters. The vote was not along party lines.

The result surprised some lawmakers.

“I thought the bill was on its way to passage,” said Rep. Kelly Hastings, a Cleveland County Republican who voted against both bills. “I kind of knew where my gut was. I knew where a lot of my constituents stood.”

Sports gambling is legal in North Carolina, but only at tribal casinos. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians owns two casinos in far-western North Carolina, where the first legal sports bet was accepted in March 2021. The Catawba Indian Nation is building a resort and casino in Kings Mountain in Cleveland County and currently operates a temporary casino, where it will begin taking sports bets this football season.

Hastings said he didn’t receive pressure from the tribe or House leadership to vote for or against the bills. He said he informed the bill’s supporters of his intention to vote no ahead of time.

Everyone expects online sports wagering legislation to resurface next year. Will it meet a different fate?

“I’m confident,” Waddell said. “We’ve got time now where everybody’s heard it. It’s been [at the] forefront. Now we’ve got the next three or five months to make sure everybody understands.”

The state Senate passed the original bill in 2021 with Republicans and Democrats voting for and against the measure. Perry said new legislation would have to start in the House.

“As the guy that sponsored the bill on the front end and navigated it through the Senate, I’ve done my part,” said Perry, who said he is not a gambler but sees the business impact of the legislation. “If the topic comes up again, I think it’s reasonable that it needs to come back from their side back to us.”