Modern Montana enjoys some of the United States’ most liberal laws regarding gambling. In Montana, one need only be 18 years old to play any form of gambling and older state laws allow wagering on everything from horse racing to casino gaming to dominoes (no, really). Yet, paradoxically, Montana legislators only got around to legalizing daily fantasy football in 2017 – and even now, there’s a pretty tight cap on wagers.
Betting in Montana
The state of Montana’s first gambling law goes back to the days when the far-ranging land was just a territory: Based on a violent incident involving the game two years earlier, the first Montana territorial legislature in 1864 passed a law against three-card monte. Despite widespread affection for betting on faro in Montana, gambling was illegalized in 1889 within the new state constitution. Given the lack of technology and vastness of the area, however, it was common knowledge that such games continued.
And then, a reversal to the original law came In 1937: The “Hickey Law” allowed for betting games like blackjack, bridge and dominoes (!) if the establishment offering such gambling paid a $10 (!!!) annual fee. From the 1940s through the 70s, Montana law enforcement devoted much time and energy to busting illegal gaming operations, such as those offering slot machine play, high-stakes poker and later on illegal bingo games.
Ending the cops-and-robbers game was the large-scale decriminalize of betting in many forms in 1972: Bingo, raffles, poker, video poker and other card games were legalized; a state lottery was established in ’76. The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988 naturally opened the door to Native American-run bingo halls, which later became full-on casinos once the legislature rolled back the anti-slots statutes in state law. Much as in Idaho, the apparent success of Native American-run casinos inspired the allowing of gambling machines in public places such as shopping malls and bars.
Football in Montana
Montana’s low population and expansive area isn’t extremely conducive to producing football players, though the state has done reasonably well for itself historically: Going into the 2018 season, 69 Montan-born men have played NFL football, running the gamut in quality from OG Jerry Kramer of those 1960s Green Bay Packers teams to Ryan Leaf, who, um, yeah.
The University of Montana has two second-round draft picks to its credit: DL Steve Okoniewski 1in 1972 and OT Scott Gragg in ’95. The Montana Grizzlies have represented the state’s largest school in NCAA football since 1897, though the team only played a handful of games mostly against smaller Montanta-based schools for decades. Even though Montana was a charter member of the Northwest Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1902, the Grizzlies rarely ventured outside the state – and each of the NWIAA’s other six teams were in fact located outside the state. Montana didn’t even record a win against an NWIAA opponent until 1914.
To say that things did not improve significantly for the Grizzlies for a good 60 more years is no exaggeration. After joining the Mountain States Conference in 1951, Montana proceeded to finish out the decade without a season of more than three wins. In 1963, Montana jumped to the Big Sky Conference, a second-division conference which included Gonzaga, a university without a football program altogether. But finally, in 1969 – success! Under head coach Jack Swarthout, the Grizzlies strung together two undefeated seasons in a row, but fell to North Dakota State in the Division II tournament both times.
And in 1985, the coming of Don Reed translated into 10 consecutive winning seasons for Montana, literally nearly as any as in the entire history of the club to date. The Grizzlies took their first national championship in ’95. Through 2009, Montana would play in six more title games, winning a second in ’01.
The Grizzlies’ main rival is of course the Montana State, a school which unfairly gets little national attention, perhaps due to its history of flipflopping between college football subdivisions as attendance and sports budget at the school wax and wane.
Whether the general public knows it or not, the MSU Bobcats hold the distinction of having won national championships at three different levels, as its titles of 1956, ’76 and ’84 were awarded as NAIA, Division II and Division I-AA championships. Additionally, some 26 MSU alums have played NFL football, most notably Norway-born Hall of Fame placekicker Jan Stenerud.
The biggest football game most years in Montana has got to be the loftily christened “Brawl of the Wild” game between the two biggish universities. Montana leads the all-time series, 72-39-5 through 2017.
Betting on football in Montana
So now that daily fantasy football and other sports betting is legal for Montana residents – though the limit on bets is capped at $35 – speculators can wonder about incipient legalization for more traditional forms of football betting. Betting revenue has shown similar returns in Montana as elsewhere in the U.S.: For the years 2011 to ’16, the Montana state government garnered some $55 million annually in taxes and fees to gaming operators.
Taxation of sports betting revenue in Montana certainly won’t bring returns like the casinos do, but Montana legislators are certainly no dummies … and they’re also on the whole social libertarians at heart. We’d guess that full-on decriminalized betting on football will be the norm in Montana. It just might take a while.