LAS VEGAS - It is a lucrative time of year for Nevada, where more than $200 million will be wagered in sports books on the men's college basketball tournament, a pot of money that has budget-crunched states across the country pushing for a piece of the action.
Voters in New Jersey passed a referendum by a 2-to-1 margin making sports betting legal, and last year Gov. Chris Christie signed a law legalizing it at Atlantic City's 12 casinos and the state's four horse racing tracks. Illinois is considering allowing sports betting, and California lawmakers are looking to reintroduce a bill that the state Senate passed last year.
All this continues to have the sports' governing bodies on high alert. The NCAA has filed a lawsuit with the NFL, the NHL, the NBA and Major League Baseball claiming that sports betting in New Jersey would "irreparably" corrupt sports in the United States.
This year they were joined by the Justice Department, which defended the constitutionality of a 1992 law banning sports betting outside Nevada and a handful of other states, which had long allowed gambling on events.
The NCAA canceled several tournaments and sporting events in the state and said it would bar New Jersey from hosting events if sports betting is implemented.
As gamblers poured into Las Vegas in anticipation of three weeks of betting on unpredictable tournament action, the NCAA sounded this warning on its official Twitter account: "Student-athletes, coaches & admins: A reminder that betting on #MarchMadness isn't worth the risks," with a link to a release detailing the arguments against wagering on sports.
In a statement, the organization tried to explain its opposition. "The NCAA maintains that the spread of legalized sports wagering is a threat to the integrity of athletic competition and student-athlete well-being," it said.
Nevertheless, the $200 million wagered on the tournament is more than double the amount bet on last month's Super Bowl, which set a record at $98.9 million.
The federal law banning sports betting, which was championed by then-Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a former professional basketball player, was intended to limit its expansion beyond Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana. But New Jersey, along with advocates in other states, say there are too many dollars at stake for that policy to continue to make sense - if it ever made sense.
Nevada took in more than $3.4 billion in bets on sports last year, generating up to $20 million in tax revenue. And the FBI estimates that $2.6 billion is bet illegally on the college basketball tournament alone, while the National Gambling Impact Study Commission says $380 billion is bet annually with bookies or offshore betting operations, often controlled by organized crime, on all sporting events together.
Last March, Nevada sports books handled $288.5 million in bets on basketball, an estimated 70 percent of them - or $201 million - on college games, according to the state gaming commission.
The growing acceptance of legalized sports betting has been reflected in an array of polls. Most recently, one from Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind in December 2012 found that 51 percent of registered voters favor legalizing sports betting in states where it is now illegal.
Bill Herzog, who often travels from Los Angeles to Vegas to gamble, understands that staying home to bet every now and then can be a good thing.
"When people are going to gamble anyway, we might as well let some of that revenue stay in their home states," he said.
In court, the NCAA and sports leagues have argued that wider sports betting would compromise their image and offer a powerful temptation to fix games. It is an argument that advocates of sports betting claim to be highly disingenuous, considering the leagues have coexisted with gambling in Nevada since 1949, not to mention all of the offshore betting and illegal wagering now.
Last month, a federal judge ruled against New Jersey and upheld the ban on sports betting. The state is appealing, and legal experts expect that the case will reach the Supreme Court.
Dennis Drazin, the lawyer who advises Monmouth Park racetrack, which has announced plans to set up a sports book, said the leagues long ago made gambling part of their enterprise.
"If gambling is really hurting the leagues, why does every sports show talk about point spreads and favorites and underdogs? And why does every office in America have a pool on the NCAA Tournament?" Drazin said. "Really, what they are doing is permitting the mob to control all the betting and, in effect, acting like co-conspirators."
He also points to policies at odds with their stated opposition. Las Vegas, for example, hosted several NCAA conference tournaments this month and professional athletes are allowed to do advertisements for team-branded lottery cards as well as encourage fantasy leagues - which nearly always involve money - on their websites.
A.G. Burnett, chairman of the Nevada State Gaming Control Board, said perhaps the best way for sports leagues to protect themselves is to allow betting to expand in legal, regulated fashion.
"We have been in this business for decades and haven't had any problems with Nevada or UNLV or any of our universities," Burnett said. "The game-fixing scandals have happened in other states where gambling is illegal. What we have here is a regulatory process specifically to monitor what happens on both sides of the counter. This is all we do and we're good at it."