Football’s In The Air, To The Ka-Ching Of Pennsylvania Sportsbooks

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Ah, autumn, when the kids go back to school, the lawn equipment can be prepared for storage, and the sportsbooks can really start making some money.

The latter is certainly the case across Pennsylvania, where enthusiasts able for the first time to participate in sports betting legally at the start of football season are fulfilling expectations of the 10 retail and five online sportsbooks now operating in the state.

Football has long been the dominant sport for betting in Nevada — especially the NFL, about which every amateur’s an expert, in his or her own mind. And in a state with two highly popular pro teams, it could be even more so the case.

Bettors are filling the casinos’ sportsbooks throughout the weekends. Heavy action is coming in on games involving the Eagles and Steelers. A high volume of in-game wagers (Who will score the next touchdown? Which team will beat the second quarter point spread?) is helping drive the online handle. College games are generating steady Saturday business.

“I would absolutely have to say that football has lived up to and even exceeded expectations for sports betting,” said Kevin O’Sullivan, general manager of Presque Isle Downs & Casino, which opened its sportsbook in July, with 50 kiosks spread around the casino taking most of the bets.

“Right now we’re seeing an increase of about 70% in tickets written over about six weeks ago, when we had baseball driving everything,” noted Jim Llewellyn, sportsbook manager at Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino.

August, and everything after

Such boosts mean that when the next monthly revenue report from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board comes out in four weeks, it’s likely to show a statewide sportsbook handle for September that dwarfs August’s $109 million.

The state does not divide the figures into category by sport, but it’s certain that football, as well as the continued increase in the number of retail and online betting outlets, will be driving more revenue for both casinos and for the state, through its 36% tax bite.

“We knew coming into this season that football’s certainly king … and there’s been a substantial increase for us,” said Andre Barnabei, vice president of gaming for Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino, where he said the sportsbook might end up doing at least 30% more business in September than August.

In addition to its having matched their hopes for what it would do for sportsbooks’ bottom line, what follows are additional insights gleaned from the first two weekends in which regular season NFL games and major college football contests shared the sports stage. The information is based on interviews this week with four retail and two online operators in the state.

Homer handle in Pennsylvania

The Eagles are considered a quality team around the NFL, and no one assesses them higher than their own fans, who are willing to put their money on it.

About two-thirds of the pre-game moneyline and point spread bets handled by FanDuel for the Eagles’ first two games were wagers placed on the Philadelphia team, FanDuel reported. While those bets came from six states in all where FanDuel has either a retail or online presence, the majority of its handle comes from its online sites in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, both of which host multitudes of Eagles backers.

“The Eagles in particular have been very popular with bettors in Pennsylvania,” said John Sheeran, director of risk and trading for FanDuel Group, who noted last week’s Eagles-Falcons game had the heaviest betting volume of any game this year for FanDuel.

But the Eagles lost that game as a small favorite and also failed to cover the spread in their opening game defeat of the Redskins.

Llewellyn said that at SugarHouse, where throngs gather around TVs during the game, probably 80% of the betting action has favored the Eagles in their two games this year.

“In that Washington game when they gave up a late touchdown, it got real quiet,” he said. “When it gets quiet, that’s the sound of money being made.”

At the Rivers Casino, Barnabei said a Steelers game might represent 20-25% of the overall volume bet on NFL games, but the betting this year has not been heavily skewed in favor of the Steelers. That’s good for the bettors, as the Steelers have also failed to cover point spreads the first two weeks.

That better balance of bets could be because, at least in the first game, they were up against the Patriots, who are also popular with casual bettors. Generally, the state’s sportsbooks fare better when popular national teams like the Pats and Chiefs lose, in addition to their needing the hometown teams to lose.

Even where there is heavy “homer” action, none of the operators said they adjust their local line to reflect that. If they think they’ve got a good number, they’re willing to take the risk.

“You will always have hometown bias, and unless you wildly adjust the odds, you will always have natural lopsidedness, whether for the Eagles or Flyers or whatever,” said Scot McClintic, head of sportsbook for Penn National Gaming, which owns Hollywood Casino. “Most money also comes in on favorites, so we’re willing to tolerate lopsided action. … Adjusting lines to the point where we’re adjusting for hometown bias we think in the long run could harm us more than help us.”

College football is running up the score too

There would be some states — think Oklahoma, Iowa, Alabama — where college football is such a huge presence that bettors might gravitate more toward those games than the NFL, but that is not Pennsylvania.

Still, there’s a steady stream of football-betting activity from morning to evening on Saturdays at the sportsbooks, while NFL action is concentrated prior to 1 p.m. on Sundays.

Operators say they may actually handle more college football bets by number, but the overall handle on NFL contests for some approaches twice the volume of what the college games attract.

“College football has far more games every week than the NFL. Still, the NFL is king,” said Mattias Stetz, chief operating officer of Rush Street Interactive, which runs the online sportsbooks for the SugarHouse and Rivers casinos. “[It’s] interesting to see that the number of bets on NCAA is higher, but the average bet is much higher on the NFL.”

“You stand to win or lose much more [as a sportsbook]on an NFL game than college,” McClintic echoed. Even with Penn State, Pitt, and Temple, he said, “Pennsylvania is less of a college football state.”

But ever since the college football season started, Saturdays have become a lot busier all around.

“The NFL is slightly dominant, but our Saturdays for college are very good,” said O’Sullivan, from Presque Isle.

In-game growing

Football bettors are getting their first taste of what it’s like to be able to place a new bet after nearly every play of the game, and apparently, they like it — especially the online/mobile users.

“I’m really surprised at how quickly the American market has picked up on in-play betting,” FanDuel’s Sheeran said. “We have sports in Europe where it’s 70-80% of total handle, like tennis and cricket. … About a quarter of our business on football right now is in-game, and I expect that to grow over time and be as much as 50% in-play vs. pre-game.”

He said the size of an average in-game bet is typically smaller than pre-game, as bettors have less time to assess their options and the odds with a high degree of confidence.

In-game wagers are also available at counters or kiosks within the casinos. They attract some betting from those present, but the speed involved in making those wagers limits the on-site volume.

“It’s a lot simpler to sit with your mobile phone or device than running back and forth,” Barnabei said.

Online or in lines?

It was common on Sundays when the new sportsbooks opened late in the 2018 NFL season to see long lines at betting windows or kiosks, with people waiting a half-hour or more. That has largely disappeared.

“We would have upwards of 400 people in line … We’re not seeing anything approaching that,” Llewellyn said.

It’s not a case of people losing interest in sports betting, though. There are a lot more retail venues in the Philadelphia area to place a wager than there were last December, and now there are five online options as well for anyone within the state.

At the same time, Barnabei said, customers have learned to spread out the times in which they place sports bets instead of flocking right before the game. Plus, they understand better how to do it, whether at the counter or kiosk, and the sportsbook staff is also more efficient from experience in moving things along.

“For the kiosks, a year ago we were trying to explain to people just how to put money into the machine. Now people walk up to place their bets and they’re done in less than a minute,” Barnabei said.

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press.

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