One of my latest pieces in The Commercial Appeal...
As far as sports betting goes, Beale Street is an ideal spot.
It already attracts tourists who, if they bet on sports there, they’ll likely eat at Beale Street restaurants or hang out at its clubs and leave after a few days.
Also, seeing that tourism adds $3.2 billion to Shelby County’s economy already, picking off a few gamblers headed to Mississippi to lay down bets on teams could only help.
So, it’s good that the Shelby County Commission, in voting to ask the Tennessee General Assembly to allow sports betting on Beale Street — a place where revelry, dancing, drinking and assorted sin is perpetually in season anyway — asked that it be confined there.
It’s good not just because it can attract tourists who, more than likely, can afford to bet, but because it may also limit people who can’t afford to do so.
Let me explain.
I’m not against gambling. I believe that anyone, regardless of whether they earn $7.25 an hour as a restaurant dishwasher or $200,000 a year as a physician, should be able to spend their money as they choose. That includes betting on sports teams.
But Memphis is the nation’s second poorest city. And Shelby County’s 18.8 percent poverty rate, as well as the 17.1 percent poverty rate for the metropolitan area, is higher than the 13.4 percent national poverty rate.
Which means the last thing the commission, or any lawmakers, for that matter, should do is give free rein to an industry that could entice the poorest people to bet on sports teams instead of buying food or necessities.
Jim Whelan, professor and co-director of the Institute for Gambling Education and Research at the University of Memphis, knows the problem.
He said that while most people who gamble do it for entertainment, some 18,000 people in Shelby County could be diagnosed with a gambling problem, while another 26,000 people's lives have been damaged by gambling.
He also believes the commission’s idea to limit sports betting to Beale Street is smart.
“Sports betting already exists,” said Whelan, whose institute treats around 60 people a year for gambling addictions. “Beale Street makes a lot of sense, because it creates a way to regulate it.”
Already, though, the idea of isolating sports betting to Beale is being questioned. While the commission plans to use any money raised from sports betting to help pay for education and other needs, Chad Millman, chief content officer for The Action Network, a sports media company, believes limiting sports betting to Beale likely won’t reap the kind of revenue they’re looking for.
That may be.
But if sports betting is allowed everywhere, like, say half-empty shopping strips in struggling areas, it could possibly make people poorer by making it easier for them to lose money on something other than the lottery.
Of course, if people in those areas want sports betting in their neighborhoods, that decision should ultimately be left to them. But right now, it makes sense for the commission to see how it works out in places where it can be regulated.
That seems to be the inclination of lawmakers like Commission Chairman Van Turner, and Rep. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican and advocate of sports betting. Kelsey believes it should be limited to stadiums and entertainment districts.
True, sports betting is happening everywhere – and that people will find a way to do it.
But while I understand that, I also hate that lawmakers are in a position where, in raising money for education and other needs to boost the quality of life for their constituents, they must risk getting that money from industries that could possibly worsen the quality of life for some of them.
“Gambling, whether it’s lottery, or casino or sports betting, is always more enticing to poor people than wealthier people, who tend to gamble on the stock market,” said Robert Goodman, author of “The Luck Business: The Devastating Promises of America’s Gambling System.”
“When the government becomes dependent on gambling to raise revenue, it makes it tougher for it to look out for the public interest, because government then becomes a promoter, not a regulator.”
So, while I’m good with sports betting on Beale Street, I’m not good with the path that led us here.
Maybe, one day that will change.