Georgia is a state brimming with entertainment. You can catch a Bulldogs game at Sanford Stadium and then pop over to a punk show at the 40 Watt Club. You can hit the Beltway for a bike ride and finish off an afternoon perusing the shops at Ponce City Market.
Pan for gold in Dahlonega and snag a kitschy Rock City Birdhouse at Lookout Mountain.
Georgia is flush with things to do, but it’s not a gambler‘s haven by any stretch of the imagination. There are plenty of ways to burn some cash in the state, just not in a poker room or an online sportsbook.
However, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon for those seeking legalized sports betting in Georgia. It’s the first step to bringing gambling out of the nefarious Georiga shadows and into a regulated market that benefits the state.
The Georgia Lottery leads the way
The State of Georgia’s historic relationship with gambling is a complex one. But, the consistent thread is one you’re familiar with: the lottery. The origins of lotteries in Georgia stretch back to the early 1800s when they were used to generate funds for local education. Sound familiar?
Gambling revenue was also an important resource for the state as it sought to rebuild in the wake of the Civil War.
Across all boundaries and borders, gambling has historically proven a reliable source of income for local governments. Georgia is no exception to this phenomenon.
Near the turn of the century, however, shifting political winds and moral opinions outlawed a lottery in the state. It wasn’t until 1976 that a constitutional amendment was passed to permit bingo games for non-profit organizations.
Thereafter, it took nearly 20 years, until 1992, when The Georgia Lottery was finally legalized and formally established.
The lottery has virtually run the show ever since without many other options for gamblers.
Sure, you can hop onto a casino cruise in southeast Georgia for an evening of table games, but aside from destination entertainment, the state is currently going bust outside of the lottery for regular gamblers.
The seedy underbelly of the South
The story is an extremely familiar one, but the names may not be.
Inevitably, when governments fail to acknowledge and act on the public’s demand, black markets develop.
Georgia’s failure to establish legal means for gambling did not mean that gambling went away — it simply moved underground.
In an effort to “protect the public” from the dangers of poker and betting on racehorses, the state invariably ensured that the only way to do such things meant associating with a host of shady characters.
In the case of Georgia, that likely meant the Dixie Mafia.
The Dixie Mafia, operating primarily as a bootlegging and illegal gambling operation in the South in the 1960s, became the face of the seedy Southern underbelly post-World War II.
While it was scattered throughout the Southeast — Biloxi, Baton Rouge, Birmingham — its Georgia presence was embedded in Atlanta and overseen by a gentleman named Billy Sunday Birt.
Colloquially (and infamously) known as “The Deadliest Man in Georgia History,” Birt plied his wares with all things vice: racketeering, rumrunning, robbery; and of course, murder.
While he was convicted of killing a former associate, Donald Chancey, in 1972, Birt is widely rumored to have murdered over 50 people during his bloody reign as the head of the Georgia Dixie Mafia.
Hence the nickname.
With a lack of legal avenues, vice fills the void
In the absence of above-board means to belly up to a poker table or take the over in a Georgia-Georgia Tech game, Georgians would likely need to make acquaintances with a local bookie for wagers on the sly.
With zero regulation in those circumstances, placing a simple bet meant wading into murky waters with nefarious figures — folks who could be on the payroll of the Billy Sunday Birt-types who filled the legal gambling void in the state.
Birt died at Waycross Prison in 2017, where he was serving a life sentence for three murders. But the black market doesn’t stop with the man, as evidenced by the rash of gambling ring arrests in recent years, including a 2019 bust in Macon that involved 650 electronic gaming machines operated in over 100 legitimate storefronts.
Georgians are a fiercely independent lot, barriers and roadblocks be damned. In the case of gambling, however, that leads to crossing paths with unsavory individuals running backroom table games, or the bookie at the end of the bar who may only offer a nickname.
If they were extremely unlucky, they would have entered the circle of the Dixie Mafia and Billy Sunday Birt.
Irrespective of the current legal status of gambling in Georgia, it’s clear that with the uptick in illegal gambling arrests, the desire to place wagers remains very high. What remains unclear is if there will be options available other than the Georgia Lottery.
That will be up to the State Legislature in short order.
Bills moving through the legislature to provide more options
There are currently two bills moving through the Georgia House, both of which have already cleared their legislative hurdles in the Senate.
Senate Resolution 135 and Senate Bill 142 — two legislative items intended to work in tandem — would clear the path for legal sports betting in the state, with the Georgia Lottery being established as the administrative vehicle for wagering on sports.
And just this week, new sports betting language was added to amendments to help push legal sports being across the finish line in the Peach State.
The lottery has been the tether all along.
Both bills are working their way through House committees. However, there’s not a current timetable on when they could see the floor for a formal vote. Or if they see one at all.
If this occurs on a faster timeline, voters could see a ballot initiative deciding the fate of legalizing sports gambling by the 2022 General Election.
Georgia’s rich history finds absence in stories of folks getting rich through legal gambling means in the state.
You’ve got the occasional scratch–off millionaires and Powerball winners. Additionally, with the lottery forming the state’s gambling infrastructure that’s all you would likely see. But the Georgia Lottery has proven a reliable revenue generator, and with any luck (as all gambling requires) will also serve as an effective conduit for sports gambling in the future.
Photo Credit: The Associated Press