A measure before Georgia’s state legislature this month would, if passed, have allowed state voters a chance to vote on a referendum to amend the state constitution so that online sportbet gambling would be permitted in Georgia. The measure never made it to the plenum for a vote once it became clear that there wasn’t enough support, either within the ruling Republican party or from Democratic representatives. The reason has nothing to do with the question of gambling.
Georgia has never been a gambling-friendly state but sports betting supporters had hoped that giving state residents the opportunity to wager on sports would have been a different story. Currently, the only type of gambling that is legal in Georgia involves bingo games, lottery betting and raffles. However, even states that were previously unfriendly to gambling have, during the course of the last two years, allowed sports betting to operate in their states and Georgia sports betting supporters had hoped that such would be the case in the Peach State as well.
In the end, anger over a totally unrelated bill – SB 202, a sweeping overhaul of the state’s election laws – destroyed whatever bi-partisan goodwill that was needed to get the sports betting referendum on the next ballot. As State Senator Elena Parent (D-Decatur) explained, as quoted in Forbes, “There were members of the House Democratic conference who took a stand saying they would not support sports betting until the professional sports teams and other business entities who wanted it came out strongly against SB 202, the elections rewrite bill.” (SB 202 is, civil rights advocates say, an attempt to disenfranchise Black voters by making it harder for them to access the polls, and send in absentee ballots).
The passage of SB 202, which has been called “Jim Crow 2.0,” could affect many Republican-led initiatives for years to come. The Republican effort to put a sports-betting referendum on the ballot is, it seems, just the tip of the iceberg and the first demonstration of the willingness of SB 202 opponents to fight the bill in every way possible. When the gambling/betting bill was proposed, the Georgia NAACP requested that the State Senate’s Black Caucus oppose it because of SB 202’s passage. The NAACP says that, simply, SB 202 was designed to prevent Black people from voting.
Atlanta teams wanted to see the betting bill pass because they want to see their relationships with their fans pushed forward, in the same way that they are seeing it develop in the 19 states that have sports betting operations up and running. The 4 Atlanta teams, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Braves, Atlanta United and Atlanta Hawks opposed SB 202, though the opposition was, many felt, tepid. In a column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Michael Cunningham wrote that it’s probable that the teams decided not to denounce SB 202 in order to get the sports betting legislation passed.
Now, there’s no legislation and plenty of angry fans. The teams are struggling to compensate. Tony Ressler, principal owner of the Atlanta Braves, issued a statement saying “The right to vote is the most fundamental citizen’s right and we at the Hawks view ourselves as a civic asset — not a partisan organization — and remain committed to endorsing steps that promote equality and encourage participation by all who seek to cast a ballot.”
Even the Hawks, who opened up their State Farm Arena as a voting site and were involved in every level of the get-out-the-vote campaigns last fall, were muted in their response to SB 202. And Atlanta Falcons chairman and owner Arthur Blank who has been active in supporting Civil Rights causes in the past, gave a similarly tepid response to passage of the bill. “Every voice and every vote matters. The right to vote is simply sacred. We should be working to make voting easier, not harder for every eligible citizen. Our businesses and family foundation will continue to actively support efforts that advance voting access for the citizens of Georgia and across the nation.”
If the gambling legislation had passed, the question of whether to allow sports betting in Georgia would have been given over to state voters to decide in a referendum of the state constitution. Now it seems that, not only will Georgia voters be deprived of the opportunity to have their voices heard on this issue, but the fallout from the decision could be a blow to the state economy. Atlanta may well lose its place as host of the Major League Baseball’s 2021 All-Star Game and sports federations, including the NCAA, may be reluctant to schedule events in Atlanta where sports tourism has become a significant industry.
The impact of the “Voting Regulation Bill” may not end there. Atlanta promotes itself as “Sports Capital” of America. The city has served as host of many sporting events in recent years including the Final Four, the College Football Playoffs and the Super Bowl. The city may now find that both professional and amateur leagues are sensitive to issues involving Civil Rights and those leagues are prepared to use their clout to back up their concerns. In just one recent example of such economic clout, the NBA cancelled its All-Star Game from Charlotte in 2017 after the state enacted measures that limited protections for LGBT community.
Following the passage of SB 202, plans to have the MLB All-Star Game played in Georgia’s Truist Park, home of the Braves have been placed under renewed discussion. Shortly before the Braves’ Opening Day Game in Philadelphia, team leader Freddie Freeman was asked about the possibility that the All-Star Game may be moved to a different locale as a way of showing opposition to the bill. Freeman said that, “It’s a conversation to be had. If we do keep it in Atlanta, you can do something around that in that situation. Or, if we do move it, that’s up to Tony Clark and the (union’s) executive subcommittee and stuff like that. But we’ll see what happens in the next couple of months.”
Opponents of SB 202 point out that there are many ways to exert pressure on Georgia legislators to cancel the bill. Economic pressure is just one option. Cancellations of major events and denial of opportunities to promote sports betting might accomplish what months of debates and public discourse failed to do. Pressure on large corporations to denounce the bill, including sports businesses, seems to be the most expedient next step for the anti-SB 202 team. The question is, after a year of pandemic recession, can Georgia afford to ignore the kickback that SB 202 is inflicting on its economy?