All bets will be off at one sports bar in Rapid City on Super Bowl Sunday.
The owner of Thirsty’s said Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo has informed him he could be prosecuted if customers there participate in a football pool on a day when millions of dollars will be bet on everything from who wins the big game to what kind of hats Bruno Mars will wear while performing at halftime.
Frank Morrison said that when he told his customers "no more pools," they took their business to another bar.
"A lot of them were mad at me," he said Thursday, adding that between 40 and 45 people would come to his Main Street bar to watch football games and play in the pools before he received a letter this past fall that outlined the prosecutor’s stance on gambling.
Vargo said he contacted Thirsty’s after receiving a complaint earlier this football season about the weekly pools, a form of gambling that is a Class 2 misdemeanor offense in South Dakota and punishable by up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
"We sent him a letter that said 'look, you want to be very cautious about this' and directed him to the state statute," Vargo said when asked about Morrison’s claim.
According to the state’s attorney’s office, sports pools fall into the same category as lotteries and only charitable organizations can legally conduct them. Included in the list of charitable organizations are veterans’ groups, volunteer fire departments, civic and service clubs, and political parties and political action committees. The games also need the approval of city or county governments.
Until last September, Morrison had a group of patrons who organized the weekly football pools. He kept the pool cards and cash at the bar, but they managed the pool, he said.
Then Vargo sent him the letter explaining that it's a violation of state law to require a payment or purchase to participate in a pool and that it would be in "everyone's best interest for your business to bring its practices into compliance before there is an investigation or any formal action."
Since then, Morrison said he sought clarification on the law from Vargo’s office but never heard back, which means he doesn't like the odds of hosting a pool where participants put a certain amount of money on a square on a larger grid and then can win a prize if their number comes up during the game.
Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender said his department rarely gets a complaint about sports pools and is not looking to make any football-pool busts.
"It's not something that gets reported, even on an occasional basis," he said. "To my knowledge, we don't have any investigations going on."
Vargo said he, too, is unaware of any business being prosecuted for a football pool but nonetheless wants them to be aware of the possible legal consequences.
"What we've told people is be aware of the statute, please make sure you are in compliance," he said. “We have not threatened prosecution. We have not brought prosecution, but we feel it's only fair to let them know that this statute is out there."
In the meantime, both Morrison and Vargo plan to attend Super Bowl parties on Sunday.
Morrison said expects his host might have a football pool that costs a quarter a square.
Vargo, meanwhile, doesn't expect to be in a position where he might win any money on Sunday.
"It would be very silly," he said.