Nevada had a monopoly on sports betting for decades prior to a 2018 Supreme Court decision. Now, sports betting is legal in 30 states plus Washington DC, and retail sportsbooks are being constructed all over the country, including in basketball/hockey arenas. So are those who run the books in Las Vegas sitting around fretting about how to keep visitors coming in from other states?
“If you look before PASPA, were guests leaving other states to play in sportsbooks, or was it just Las Vegas as a destination resort and the book was an amenity?” asked Jason McCormick, VP of Race and Sports for Station Casinos. “Vegas still has advantages over some book in Michigan, or wherever. From 2018 until now, Vegas has become so much more sports focused with the Vegas Golden Knights, the Raiders, the NFL Draft, Formula 1 and the many conference basketball tournaments that are held here every March.”
Chris Andrews, Sportsbook Director for South Point Hotel Casino, said the newcomers may be trying a little too hard to compete with the established books in Las Vegas. From free bets to food and beverage giveaways, the newbies are spending so much in promotions.
“The people I have talked to here in Vegas are not interested in giveaways,” Andrews said. “Vegas has a great product from A to Z. South Point has movie theaters, bowling, and great food options ranging from $1.50 hot dogs to a steakhouse.”
No need to change what is working, Andrews continued.
“We are doing a lot of things properly. Our ticket counts are up. The spread of legalized sports betting is growing the market overall. Las Vegas is still doing fine, with handle and with ticket count, from everyone I’ve talked to.”
Agreed McCormick: “The more people are talking about betting on sports, the better.”
Arms race in full swing
At some casinos, the sportsbook is a centerpiece, at others, an afterthought. It takes just a glance to see which is which, because properties that invest in their books dedicate large amounts of space to viewing screens, betting boards and more.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, two of the standard bearers were the books at Caesars Palace and the Las Vegas Hilton (now Westgate). But over the past two decades, the sportsbook arms race has heated up considerably as other Strip properties built increasingly grand facilities with dedicated restaurant options. Even the locals’ casinos scattered around the Vegas valley have gotten into the act, with Station Casinos investing in a palatial setting at Red Rock Casino in Summerlin, and the South Point at the southern end of The Strip building separate spacious rooms for sports betting and horse racing.
It is not editorializing to say the Circa Resort in Downtown Las Vegas, which opened in October 2020, was a push forward akin to the upgrade from the atomic bomb to the hydrogen bomb. The massive sportsbook has three stories, 350 stadium seats, room for 1,000 people total, and even private boxes for groups.
Circa Sportsbook is so big, Station Casinos’ McCormick said admiringly, “Circa was a property built around a sportsbook. It raises the bar.”
Jeffrey Benson, Sportsbook Operations Manager for Circa, couldn’t help but laugh when he heard the compliment from a competitor.
“The factor that separates Vegas is the brick and mortar retail component, while other states are primarily just online,” Benson assessed. “When you have a phenomenal venue, such as a three-story sportsbook, it gives fans an experience like being at a game without being at a game.”
Circa also went large with its swimming pool area, which it refers to as Stadium Swim. The space has six pools on three levels, all with views of a 40-foot-tall, high-definition screen.
Benson said he and his management team are not resting on their laurels – or the physical space occupied by the book. He asserted Circa has the lowest hold on future and day-to-day bets, which said has “really driven business.” He also pointed to the popularity of two contests involving NFL games. The Circa Sports Million III, which had players make five weekly picks against the spread during the 2021 season, offered a $1m first prize and $4m in total prizes. Circa Sports Survivor attracted 4,080 entries and gave $6m to the last player standing in picking an NFL winner each week.
“Those two contests, in which [Circa owner] Derek Stevens puts a lot of money, get people into Las Vegas, and gets them familiar with our property and our amenities,” Benson said. “They help educate consumers about our product.”
Mint juleps and golf towels
Circa may have made a big splash, but the competitors aren’t giving up. Station Casinos’ McCormick said Vegas sportsbooks are always looking for opportunities to have promotions.
“We did a Masters giveaway of a golf towel, and we do mint juleps on Kentucky Derby Day,” he said. “Vegas brings people in, then it is the job of the books to give them a great time."
South Point’s Andrews said one factor that hasn’t changed is when there is a big game going on, there is electricity in a sportsbook.
“A lot of people enjoy just hanging out in the books – half of the people rooting for one side, half for the other,” Andrews said. “People love that feeling, and it is not fading away. We have a lot of things going for us, but number one is customer service. On Saturday and Sunday we have 12 windows plus 11 kiosks. We can get your bet in on time. We have easy, accessible parking that is free. Customer service distinguishes us from all the other books in town.”
According to McCormick, running a successful sportsbook is all about bringing people back from day to day – which is accomplished by overall guest service, a clean and comfortable environment, and getting the lines up on a timely manner.
“We offer funding options, kiosks, and other ways to put on a show once someone comes to our property,” he said. “We want them to know they will get a great experience at our books, and they will come back and they will tell their friends about the experience.”
One accommodation the terrestrial books have had to make given online competition is expanding the number of proposition bets, McCormick continued. He said in the past five years, Station Casinos’ Super Bowl package has gone from 15 pages to 25 pages, and its books are offering first period lines, first five-inning lines, and even “will there be a fight” during a given hockey game.
“We are really trying to push the envelope,” he said. “When Covid hit, we were missing out on the big sports. All we had was Japanese and Korean baseball. But we found our customers gravitated to it.”
Rise of technology fuels in-game betting explosion
All three sportsbook managers interviewed for this story said one of the most significant changes to the business model has been in-game wagering. One of the earliest adopters was the M Resort, which a decade ago lent tablets to bettors to use during games in the books. Today, nearly all permit the use of mobile phones to place bets via an app.
McCormick noted Station Casinos has offered in-play wagering since 2016.
“In Nevada, people were used to betting pregame. In other markets, people have been introduced to in-game wagering when they are introduced to sports betting,” McCormick said. “We let guests bet on our app in the book, both race and sports. Covid made mobile more acceptable, and kiosks let people bet without a human interaction.”
Circa’s Benson predicted books will continue to follow the trend toward digitalization.
“People play on our app, but we also get plenty of over-the-counter play. As a sportsbook you have to continue to invest and run a first-class operation. We try to do as much in-game betting as possible.”
Andrews said South Point offers in-game wagering via an app for phones or tablets, or at the counter.
“We handle setting the in-play lines ourselves, while other places farm it out. The problem is the labor shortage. Sometimes we don’t have all the people we would like, so there are certain days I can’t do it because I don’t have enough people.”
Said McCormick: “If you blink, technology is going to pass you by, so sportsbooks have to keep up.” South Point’s Andrews gets the final word: “Our industry in Nevada is very healthy and I don’t see that changing.”