COVID Will Impact Super Bowl Sunday, But Casinos Still Count On Being The Best Place To Watch

Casinos won't be as crowded for Super Bowl viewing as they were a year ago, but they expect plenty of viewers and excitement.
Live! Pittsburgh sportsbook
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Pennsylvania casinos and their sportsbooks were packed on the Super Bowl Sunday of 2020, with football fans and bettors going wild as young quarterback phenom Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to a fourth quarter comeback.

This Sunday, operating under numerous COVID-19 restrictions, the state’s casinos will be challenged to create the same charged atmosphere, though all will be trying.

Thirteen of the 14 casinos, with little Lady Luck Nemacolin the lone exception, have retail sportsbooks that have been taking Super Bowl bets on the Chiefs or Tampa Bay Buccaneers for nine days now, and they expect the wagering to be far more active closer to the 6:30 p.m. Sunday contest than has been the case thus far. Many, but not all, are hosting Super Bowl-related promotions for patrons or offering seating/dining packages tied to the game, only on a lesser scale than what was offered last year.

That’s due to restrictions that have the casinos operating at 50% maximum capacity, with social distancing requirements among patrons and within restaurants. Bars are not open as drinking-only venues, and the sportsbooks themselves provide less seating for game-viewing than they did a year ago.

Still, given the limited alternatives compared to pre-COVID days for people who want to get out of the house to watch the game, the casinos are counting on plenty of visitors to make things more exciting than for a normal football game or customary casino Sunday.

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“Our 45-foot video wall is a big reason we can’t wait for the Super Bowl,” said Sean Sullivan, general manager of the new Live! Pittsburgh. “It’s the place to be in the region to see these big events.”

Live! Philadelphia now open to general public

Live! Pittsburgh, the mini-casino that opened in November in Westmoreland County, and its big brother, the Live! Casino & Hotel Philadelphia, are both so new as to never have hosted a Super Bowl event, and they’re looking to make the most of it using their retail FanDuel sportsbooks and Sports & Social restaurants.

The Philadelphia property is no longer asking people to make online reservations before attending, as it did when launching with a soft opening Jan. 19. It has moved up its grand public opening to this Thursday, instead of Feb. 11, and part of the reason is to take into account the large volume of people expected on Sunday, said Mario Maesano, senior vice president of marketing.

“We want to make sure this space is open for a market that’s really craving something” in the way of Super Bowl atmosphere, Maesano said. As part of that, more than 100 tickets have been offered for reserved seating in the sportsbook lounge and Sports & Social restaurant, with most of those already purchased at prices of $30 and up.

“Demand is high, because one of the biggest comments we’ve gotten so far is people feel safe here in the COVID environment because of all the extra precautions we’ve taken,” Maesano said. “It makes it one of the best places to watch the Super Bowl and celebrate.”

It’s much the same on the other side of the state in the two-story Live! property at Westmoreland Mall, Sullivan said. The venue has been popular enough that at peak Saturday hours it has sometimes had to have those arriving wait at the door until patrons inside exited — “a one in and one out scenario,” he said.

That could happen again Sunday, but $20 reservations are being sold for those who want to be guaranteed a seat, with two drinks included, in its Sports & Social area on the second level in front of the giant TV screen.

“You don’t have to have a reservation to be here,” Sullivan noted. “There’s a ton of standing room and TVs throughout the property, and there will be energy everywhere. … When we had the [Conor] McGregor fight two Saturdays ago, it was crazy with energy.”

Sportsbooks lost to bettors on last year’s game

While more than 90% of the sports betting handle in Pennsylvania comes through online or app wagering, the casinos value their retail sportsbooks as an amenity that helps bring in patrons they might not otherwise see. And that’s never more the case than on Super Bowl Sunday.

“The book was full of people and excitement,” Atif Chaudry, sportsbook manager for Meadows Racetrack & Casino, recalled of last year’s game. “Anytime a team comes back from being down in a game makes for an amazing Super Bowl.”

There’s no telling if either Mahomes or already-legendary Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady will lead a similar comeback this time, but it’s a matchup that the sportsbook operators see as reason to expect robust betting volume.

Last year, Pennsylvania bettors wagered $30.7 million legally in the state on the game both online and at retail locations, and they actually came out $3.3 million ahead. At the dozen retail sites that were in operation, they bet $6.7 million and won $450,894 from the sportsbooks.

“Last year, the Super Bowl was our biggest day of handle we ever had, and I would expect us to come close to breaking that again,” Chaudry said.

The Meadows has reduced its sportsbook seating from 120 to 50 due to COVID distancing, but it will also set up viewing on a first-come, first-serve basis with 120 chairs in its recently remodeled H Lounge concert venue, Chaudry said.

In early betting, he said, while the public backed the Chiefs last year, those wagering on the game at the Meadows thus far have leaned toward the Bucs.

Who’s willing to bet against the GOAT?

Across the state at Rivers Philadelphia, sportsbook manager Jim Llewellyn was finding the same early trend.

“I don’t think they want to bet against the GOAT,” he said, meaning the “greatest of all time” moniker for Brady.

And yet, Llewellyn said, the online sites nationally for BetRivers.com, with which Rivers Philadelphia is affiliated, has seen the early wagering favor the Chiefs, who have been consistently favored by about 3 points for the contest.

Unlike last year, when it offered reserved seating and a buffet for a price, Rivers Philadelphia is not offering any special seating or dining package to the public for the game. It has about one-third the seating available in the sportsbook as it did a year ago, due to COVID spacing, and those will likely be taken up by reservations for VIP customers.

Llewellyn expects plenty of others will be viewing the game, however, as, “The way our viewing area is set up, there are no walls [to block sightlines]. It’s set up on one wall of the casino and very open. There’s plenty of space to stand and keep six feet from your closest neighbor and take in the game. … I think there’s still going to be a lot of excitement because of the teams involved.”

Other casinos have their own setups, offers

Unlike Rivers Philadelphia, its sister Rivers Casino Pittsburgh will be hosting a special gathering for the game. Its sportsbook has an invitation-only viewing event, but it is outfitting its second-floor ballroom with two 15-foot screens where it is welcoming anyone to watch, with food and beverages available for purchase.

Other casinos vary in what they’re offering, with some creating special contests for those either betting on the game itself or who might simply be playing slots and table games on Sunday.

Mount Airy Casino Resort, for example, is offering “Big Game Box Score” prize drawings (similar to a block pool) of $100 to $400 each quarter of the game for 100 attendees who placed a Super Bowl wager of at least $20 beforehand.

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