Tom Ryan held up the slips of paper showing his football picks and boldly declared, “Here are the winners!”

Ryan, 65, of Brigantine, had just made his selections for the weekend slate of NFL games using a touchscreen at a kiosk at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. He and legions of other Atlantic City customers can win tens of thousands of dollars in cash or free slot play at Borgata and other casinos offering NFL “pick ’em” contests.

Unlike sports betting in Las Vegas, however, they don’t have to wager one penny to play. In Atlantic City, gamblers can get a taste of sports betting without having to bet.

“This is like sports betting without having to put any money up,” said Ryan, a Philadelphia Eagles fan who said he’s won $1,200 so far this season in Borgata’s NFL contest. “It’s great. It’s a win-win.”

Casino executives, however, are quick to stress that Atlantic City’s football promotions are not some clever way to offer a form of online gambling or to skirt the federal law banning sports betting in all but four states.

“It’s a free promotion, with a chance to win based on picking the most winners or a random drawing. It’s not viewed as sports betting. It’s a form of entertainment,” said Joe Lupo, Borgata’s senior vice president of operations.

Despite New Jersey’s courtroom and legislative attempts to introduce sports betting, the fact remains that the activity is legal only in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana, the states that had some form of it already on the books when the 1992 federal ban became law. New Jersey has filed a federal lawsuit to overturn the ban, claiming it is unconstitutional.

Atlantic City’s casinos routinely offer drink and food specials during NFL games, but some of them also have football sweepstakes, giving fans a chance to hit pay dirt. Customers need only to be a member of a casino’s loyalty program to play for free using their rewards cards.

Some of the Pennsylvania casinos also have gotten in on the action. Caesars Entertainment Corp., owner of four Atlantic City casinos, has a football pick ’em sweepstakes at its Harrah’s Philly racetrack casino in Chester, Pa. SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia offers weekly cash prizes and is dangling a $1 million payday at the end of the season if someone correctly picks the winners in 205 of the 238 total NFL games.

Both Borgata and Revel, Atlantic City’s newest casino, have football contests offering $1 million in prizes. Tropicana Casino and Resort has a “TFL,” or Tropicana Football League, promotion that awards the casino’s Diamond Club members free slot play for selecting the winning NFL teams.

“Tropicana’s TFL promotion debuted in 2009 and was brought back this fall due to popular demand,” said Steve Callender, the casino’s general manager. “It is not used as a tool to introduce online gaming. It’s simply a fun-added value promotion where customers choose their favorite teams, without point spreads, to win.”

The NFL promotions at Borgata and Revel are immensely popular with fans, casino representatives said.

“Yes, it involves NFL games, which are watched on TV in millions of homes each Sunday. But it’s like other giveaways for cash and prizes every week,” Lupo said. “It is more of a promotion to drive business to the property.”

Revel spokeswoman Maureen Siman said the number of pick ’em entries has increased each week at her casino.

“Our guests love the promotion. It gives everyone a chance to get in the game, even if they’re not a football fan,” Siman said.

Revel has weekly prizes totaling $50,000 for entrants with the most correct picks. If someone is incredibly lucky and selects every winner throughout the season, that person will grab Revel’s $1 million prize.

Each week, Borgata gives away a total of $60,000 in prizes for its NFL contest, including $20,000 in cash to the entrants with the most winning picks and $40,000 in bonus slot dollars awarded in random drawings.

Eagles fans Bill and Denise Hess, of Galloway Township, have been playing on a regular basis at Borgata in hopes of getting a big prize.

“So far, he’s not made any money,” Denise Hess playfully said of her husband.

“If all the favorites come in, we’re in good shape,” Bill Hess reassured while making his picks Wednesday.

Unfortunately, one of his picks for this past weekend was Philadelphia over the Detroit Lions. The Lions upset the Eagles in overtime, 26-23.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258