Wanna Bet?: Amending the Wire Act Moves the Line Forward for Sports Betting in the States

Wanna Bet?: Amending the Wire Act Moves the Line Forward for Sports Betting in the States

Elsa Larsen

Back in the day, your bookie knew your name, your favorite team, wrote you a ticket by hand, and smiled when you came for a winning payout.[1] This is the Las Vegas sports-betting era that Parker remembers.[2] Parker was lucky enough to live in Nevada—at the time, the state held a monopoly on sports betting—so she often received calls from friends outside of the state asking if she could place sports-bets for them at the casino. Parker has lived her whole life in Sin City and a drive down Las Vegas Boulevard with her demonstrates just how much the city has changed.[3] She recalls the fire at the MGM Grand Hotel and near-fatal car bombing of mobster Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, both of which left Las Vegas locals on edge.[4] The deafening sounds of hotel implosions are seared in her mind, along with the hope that visionaries like Steve Wynn and Kirk Kerkorian brought to the desert oasis in the form of hotel-casinos.[5] Parker reflects on the changes her city has gone through, including witnessing the evolution of Vegas’s sports-betting scene. What started as a-cash-rules-everything-around-me-type-town to the recent trend towards virtual currency.[6] Fast forward to the era of the internet: mobile sportsbooks and sports-betting apps have replaced Parker. Her out-of-state friends no longer need to call Parker in order to place their sports-bets.

In Murphy v. NCAA, the Supreme Court held that states have the authority to legalize sports-betting schemes.[7] The Supreme Court’s decision in Murphy did not affect the applicability of the federal Wire Act, and as such has not authorized interstate sports-betting by phone or internet. Currently, neither the text of the Wire Act nor the holding of Murphy approves of sports-betting via internet or phone between states without both states having legalized sports-betting. Interpretations of the Wire Act paint a disorderly picture, full of inconsistencies and misunderstandings, leaving no other option but for the antiquated legislation to be amended and updated.[8] Due to the Wire Act’s conflicting interpretations, interstate sports-betting is still prohibited, despite the country’s increasing embrace of sports-gambling and the ever-present technological world that exists today.[9]

This Note argues that the outdated Wire Act must be amended to allow for interstate sports-betting. Part I looks at the cultural history of gambling and sports-betting legislation in America, and what lead to the passage of the Wire Act. Part II discusses how the Wire Act’s current form is a hindrance on sportsbooks and proposes an amendment to the Wire Act that will support interstate sports-betting using mobile sportsbooks. This Note’s proposed amendment differs from prior Wire Act updates by targeting sports-betting, not all forms of gambling, and by authorizing interstate sports-betting through the removal of criminal penalties associated with using the internet or phone to transmit sports-bets and sports-betting data.[10]

[1] Interview with Christy Parker, Dir. of Purchasing, Vegas Tickets, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Jan. 2, 2022).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.; see History Timeline, Las Vegas Sun, https://lasvegassun.com/history/timeline/ (last visited Jan. 23, 2022) (in 1980 and 1982, respectively); Larry Henry, Who Bombed Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal’s Car?, The Mob Museum, (April 8, 2020) https://themobmuseum.org/blog/who-bombed-frank-lefty-rosenthals-car/.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Murphy v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n [NCAA], 138 S. Ct. 1461, 1468 (2018).

[8] See Whether Proposals by Illinois and New York to Use the Internet and Out-of-State Transaction Processors to Sell Lottery Tickets to In-State Adults Violate the Wire Act, 35 Op. O.L.C. 1, 2 (2011) [hereinafter 2011 Opinion] (concluding that the Wire Act’s prohibitions on the interstate transmission of bets and wagers apply only to bets or wagers involving sporting events) (emphasis added); Reconsidering Whether the Wire Act Applies to Non-Sports Gambling, 42 Op. O.L.C. 1, 3 (2018) [hereinafter 2018 Opinion] (reversing the 2011 interpretation to conclude that the Wire Act’s prohibitions extend beyond sports betting).

[9] Michelle Minton, The Original Intent of the Wire Act and Its Implications for State-based Legalization of Internet Gambling, in Ctr. Gaming Rsch., (Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas: Occasional Paper Series No. 29, 2014).

[10] Kate C. Lowenhar et al., The Potentially Catastrophic Impact of Re-interpreting the Federal Wire Act (Using RAWA as a Guide), Nev. Gaming L., Sept. 2018, at 45, https://www.nvbar.org/wp-content/uploads/13-Catastrophic-Impact-of-ReInterpreting-Federal-Wire-Act.pdf (discussing RAWA’s legislative attempt to expand the Wire Act’s prohibitions to all forms of gambling). 

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