New Jersey becomes first US state to take legal Oscars bets

LAS VEGAS -- Perhaps you weren't sure—or didn't care—if Gisele Bundchen's husband and the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl this month. But you know why The Favourite is a favourite to win an Oscar for best costume design and you're willing to bet on Lady Gaga snagging some hardware for her performance in A Star is Born.

Now, for the first time in the United States, you can legally bet on one of pop culture's biggest nights.

New Jersey is the first state in the U.S. to allow sportsbooks to accept wagers on the Oscars, taking after a common practice in Europe and giving American fans another option besides informal office pools.

Casinos see it as a way to attract more customers to the sportsbook, even with limited bets.

"We have customers who aren't huge sports fans, but enjoy playing games like bingo or roulette with us," said Mattias Stetz, chief operating officer of Rush Street Interactive, which operates PlaySugarHouse.com in New Jersey. "We believe a new audience may be fans of the Oscars and want to make their viewing experience even more exciting by placing a bet on their favourite movie."

SugarHouse has Roma as a big favourite to win best picture at the ceremony scheduled for Feb. 24. Some casinos are accepting bets only on best picture nominees, while others are offering more options, like best director, best actress and best actor.

While sportsbooks sometimes accept six- and seven-figure wagers on football games and other sports, the limits for the Oscars are much smaller. Some set the limit for the amount wagered at $500 a bet.

Sportsbooks in New Jersey began opening last spring, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on sports wagering. The ruling put an end to Nevada's effective monopoly on that form of gambling.

Sportsbooks in Nevada have never offered wagers on the Oscars. The state has a long history of resisting wagering on non-sporting events -- even explicitly banning bets on things like elections -- but opened up slightly in 2011 by allowing wagers on the World Series of Poker, the first event bets allowed on something beyond a traditional sport. A Nevada casino asked to offer the Oscars in 2012 but was denied. Over the last four years, Nevada regulators have allowed wagers on votes for things like Super Bowl MVP, the Heisman Trophy in college football and AL and NL MVP in baseball.

A.G. Burnett, former chairman of the regulatory Nevada Gaming Control Board, said the decision from regulators to approve bets on non-sporting events rests on several factors, including how the event is supervised and whether the event's outcome is verifiable and generated by a reliable and independent process.

New Jersey's move got off to a rough start. Sportsbooks began offering odds on the awards ceremony after getting the OK from regulators, but they were later asked to temporarily take them off their boards.

"We saw something we wanted to look into a little more closely," David Rebuck, director of New Jersey's Division of Gaming Enforcement, said after the odds were back up. He would not specify what regulators were reviewing.

At William Hill, Vice is the long shot for best picture at plus-2,500, meaning a gambler bets $100 on Vice would win $2,500 if the movie wins in the category.

The book also picked Alfonso Cuaron to take a statue home for directing Roma, at minus-1,000.

Oddsmakers have Glenn Close as an odds-on favourite for best actress for The Wife. But many fans in New Jersey disagree.

Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill's director of trading, said Lady Gaga has been the most popular choice among bettors. Fifteen of the 82 tickets that the operator had written on the event as of Friday were for the star to best Close, Olivia Colman, Yalitza Aparicio and Melissa McCarthy.

"I don't know if that's horrible, great or what because it's the first go round," Bogdanovich said of the total number of tickets. "But I guess 82 tickets is 82 tickets regardless of whether it is on NBA, baseball or whatever. I was just happy that we were able to book it... The more diverse we can get the better."