Legal gambling to benefit small university athletic programs in NC

Published 10:12 pm Wednesday, January 24, 2024

If I were a betting man (and for the record, I am not actually a betting man – on account of being both a woman and someone who only plays poker for fun), I would say that a lot of people are interested in sports betting in North Carolina.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law last June that would legalize betting on sports in the state, starting sometime in 2024. (It has not, however, taken affect yet as of the writing of this column.) Before the bill, the only legal way to gamble in the state was to attend one North Carolina’s three casinos, or to perhaps buy a lottery ticket if you’re feeling lucky. Tennessee and Virginia already allowed mobile sports betting, and with the passage of last year’s bill, North Carolina became the 28th state join the same club.

According to reporting I read last year from WUNC, it was not an easy road to passing the legislation. In 2022, the bill failed by just one vote in the state House of Representatives. Those opposed said the revenues wouldn’t be worth encouraging people’s potentially harmful gambling habits.

But ultimately, the bill did pass and estimates say sports betting could generate $100 million annually in tax revenues within five years. And that could mean $71 million in net revenue for North Carolina.

But where would those revenues go?

A portion of the funds from the state lottery, for example, are directed towards public education in areas such as school construction, school transportation, scholarships, and more.

Apparently, the mobile sports betting revenues would be put towards athletic initiatives throughout the state and also towards problem-gambling programs. What I didn’t know was that part of the funds will be allocated to help support athletic programs at several of North Carolina’s smaller public universities.

I learned more about that particular planned use of funding in a more recent WUNC article this week which interviewed Dick Christy, the Director of Athletics at UNC Pembroke.

Twenty percent of the yearly tax revenue from legalized sports betting in the state will be split amongst the 10 UNC system schools with the smallest athletic budgets. Those schools include UNC Pembroke, Fayetteville State, Winston-Salem State, Elizabeth City State, Western Carolina, UNC Wilmington, UNC Greensboro, UNC Asheville, NC Central, and NC A&T State.

It’s estimated that each school will get at least $300,000 annually, but that amount could potentially grow to $1.5 million per year. It really just depends on how popular sports betting becomes in North Carolina. The more people who take part in it, the more revenue that could be pulled in.

Christy said those projected numbers were based on information from similar places that have legalized betting. But no one knows for sure how things will play out in North Carolina until it actually happens.

The extra revenue to their athletics department will be “game-changing,” Christy continued.

“It’s not exaggeration to say we were really running out of options on how to sustainably fund athletics in the state of North Carolina,” he explained.

That was news to me. But apparently many schools in the UNC System received funding through the Intercollegiate Athletic Fee paid by full-time face-to-face students. But now with more part-time students and others who choose to do their schooling virtually, that revenue source is dwindling. Christy said some schools are even having to reduce the number of sports they offer because of this.

I can’t imagine how much money it takes to run a university athletic department, but I’m sure the costs add up when you consider coaching salaries, equipment, facility maintenance, travel, and more. Not every school has the deep pockets of the successful Power 5 conferences after all.

Another surprising thing I learned from the Christy interview is that, on average, about 92 percent of athletic funding for Division II schools comes from the university itself. The Division I schools tend to have more diverse revenue streams to help support their programs instead. The sports betting revenues promised to these smaller schools will help broaden their athletic revenue streams too.

“I would say in the next 10 years, the goal is definitely to continue what we’ve been doing, but to give our teams a chance to be competitive, late in the season, and funded in a way that they can actually expect to be there deep in the playoffs,” he added.

Because those funds are coming from gambling, Christy also emphasized that there needs to be a “hard line” on participation for anyone associated with college athletics. While it may be legal for everyone else, those who benefit from the sports betting outcomes should not be allowed to make bets themselves.

“When you look at all the stories about the point shaving scandals and things like that – we still have to have a strong educational component to make sure they realize this is not for you,” he said.

I thought the whole interview with Christy was very enlightening. I didn’t know that smaller schools were struggling to maintain athletic opportunities for their students, and I didn’t know just how much these new funds will help those schools.

But I still don’t know how I feel personally about public universities have to rely on gambling revenues for anything.

Looking at other states, it’s clear that plenty of money can be made from mobile sports betting. And someone’s profiting off of it whether or not it’s legal (because, like alcohol during the Prohibition era, plenty of people are still taking part in it anyway). So it makes sense that the state would take advantage of the opportunity for more money by legalizing it.

I’m glad that the gambling funds will go towards a good cause (helping our public universities in some way), but I sort of also wish our schools could get adequate funding – in all aspects – without having to resort to legalized gambling for it.

All levels of education should be a funding priority because education is one of the most important things in life. I wouldn’t bet on anything else, but I would bet on that fact.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or by phone at 252-332-7206.