East Coast Sportsbooks Hoping For A Vegas-Like Atmosphere As March Madness Begins

This year's Super Bowl wasn't quite destination viewing at the East Coast sportsbooks, but March Madness is a different animal.
sugarhouse sportsbook

A sportsbook is a fine place to watch the Super Bowl. Fans are engaged, food and drink are readily available, and you probably won’t have to deal with that annoying “I’m just here for the commercials and the halftime show” person.

But most of that experience can be replicated at any Super Bowl party in anybody’s home. Granted, you can’t legally wager in-game from the couch unless you’re in one of the very few states with regulated mobile sports betting, and you probably will have to put up with that person who shushes everyone when the commercials come on. But otherwise, you’re not missing much by choosing to watch the big game at someone’s house.

March Madness, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament that starts on Thursday (or that starts tonight, if you count the “First Four”), is different from the Super Bowl.

A sportsbook isn’t just a fine place to watch the tournament games. It’s the ultimate place to watch, whether you’re a sports bettor or just a college hoops fan.

The reasons are obvious: With March Madness, one television screen isn’t enough, the communal experience of the sweat and the buzzer beaters is next-level, and there’s a lot of betting to be done throughout the day.

Sub-par Bowl

The numbers are in for last month’s Super Bowl in the first year of legal sports betting on the East Coast, and they aren’t spectacular.

Las Vegas has long been a destination for the NFL’s title game, and this year was no exception, as Patriots vs. Rams drew $145.9 mm in Nevada betting handle, accounting for 29.3% of the total $497.5 mm sports handle in the state for the month.

The same impact was not felt at New Jersey and Pennsylvania sportsbooks. The Super Bowl generated $34.8 mm in handle in NJ, which was just 10.9% of the total sports betting handle in the state for February. In PA, specific numbers for Super Bowl betting are not available, but total betting handle in the state for the whole month was a modest $31.5 mm, and if we apply the New Jersey percentages, we can estimate that about $3.43 mm was bet on the Super Bowl at the six sportsbooks that were open in the Keystone State at the time.

It makes sense. Are hordes of people going to travel great distances to go to Atlantic City or the Meadowlands or Philadelphia or Pittsburgh in the dead of winter to gamble and watch a football game?

Las Vegas has better winter weather and plenty of other entertainment to offer. The numbers suggest the East Coast sportsbooks are not a Super Bowl destination.

What makes the Madness different

Unlike the Super Bowl, March Madness, with its four straight days of nonstop action, has the potential to be a massive draw. The Atlantic City casinos offer one such indication:

And casinos like SugarHouse in Philadelphia are counting on similar excitement.

“March Madness is really the quintessential example of something where the brick-and-mortar sportsbook experience adds a component that’s indescribable,” SugarHouse Casino Vice President and General Counsel Evan Davis told Penn Bets. “Anyone who’s been in a casino in Las Vegas watching March Madness, being able to watch all the games at once, being surrounded by people who have action on the games — for anyone who has had that experience, it’s my expectation that we’re going to offer something very similar here at Sugarhouse.

“Our minimum bet here is $5, and you don’t need a lot of action on a game to have it generate a different level of excitement in watching it and being surrounded by other folks who are watching it as well. We’ve already started to see a flow of people getting action on some of the early-round games, as well as making futures bets on who’s going to be the national champion and who’s going to win each region.”

SugarHouse was tops in the Philadelphia area in sports betting handle in February with about $7.1 mm, second only to the $8.1 mm posted by Rivers Casino, which benefits from having no legal sportsbook competition in Pittsburgh.

Like some other Philly-region properties, including Parx Casino (which trailed SugarHouse by only $130k in February handle), SugarHouse hasn’t opened its permanent sportsbook yet. These temporary books tend to have limited seating; the focus is more on having betting windows, kiosks, and odds boards than on giving fans an ideal place to watch games.

So for March Madness, SugarHouse is turning to its beer garden, Fishtown Hops, to be the central location for what it’s calling “March Mania” viewing parties. During the tournament, seats in the sportsbook require a paid reservation, whereas seats at Fishtown Hops are free. The bar-restaurant has a variety of food and drink specials during the games, and two of the casino’s 18 betting kiosks are being moved into Fishtown Hops for the tournament.

“Our sportsbook becomes standing-room-only during actual game time, so this is our way of accommodating additional interest,” Davis said.

The digital revolution is coming

SugarHouse is also taking this opportunity to drive traffic in the direction all sports betting operators should be focused on: toward mobile betting.

Online sites in New Jersey accounted for 80.8% of the state’s sports betting handle in February, a number that is rising every month. In Pennsylvania, mobile betting, though legalized, is still at least a few months away from starting. (Whereas once there was hope that mobile would launch before the end of 2018, the latest projections from insiders are pegging it at July or August.)

But SugarHouse is now doing what Parx did beginning in January, setting up an app that allows customers to build their bets digitally and simply scan a QR code at the casino to place the bet. SugarHouse is calling it “QuickBet,” and from now through Sunday, any bettor who makes a wager using the QuickBet app will be entered into a prize drawing for an all-expense-paid trip to see the Final Four games in person. (Whether the winner, if a hardcore sports bettor, will want to watch the games from the non-betting state of Minnesota is another matter.)

“We’re hoping this is going to help to build awareness and familiarity with our app and it’s going to speed things up and make it a better process for everyone,” Davis said. “Whenever mobile betting does in fact go live, that’s going to provide our customers with another option.”

Local flavor

There are two Philadelphia teams in the tournament, and it figures that the longer they’re around, the better it is for the Philly books.

Temple University, despite technically being an 11-seed in the East, might not even make it into the field of 64, as the Owls have a play-in game Tuesday night. At both SugarHouse and Parx, Temple is a 3½-point underdog against Belmont, a 70/1 shot to win the region, and 500/1 to win the national title.

Defending champion Villanova, meanwhile, a 6-seed in the South, is favored by 5½ points against St. Mary’s on Thursday. The Wildcats are +800 to win the region, and to repeat as champs they’re +3000 at Parx and +3300 at SugarHouse.


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