Pennsylvania started the 2019 football season with zero sportsbooks that had existed at the outset the year before, and just three of them within casinos that had caught any part of 2018.
Now, with the busiest time of the sports calendar ended and the most popular U.S. betting sport over but for the Super Bowl (and Pro Bowl, if that still counts), there are eight online and 12 retail locations. And their operators appear quite satisfied with what the fall brought them
“We’re very happy with the volume,” said Jim Llewellyn, sportsbook manager for Rivers Philadelphia. “Football was really strong. We went through a September, October, and November for the first time, after opening [in 2018] around mid-December, and we didn’t know quite what to expect.”
Football represented at least half of bets
As more and more online and retail sportsbooks launched during the fall, the state’s overall betting handle rose from $194.5 mm in September to $241.2 mm in October to $316.5 mm in November and $342.6 mm in December.
That reflects both the combination of new betting opportunities for Pennsylvanians and a sports-heavy season in which football overlaps with the tail end of baseball and the start of basketball and hockey.
But make no mistake, football is the king of betting, especially in a state where multiple professional teams and college teams have huge followings.
Sportsbook operators indicated that football made up half or more of their overall wagering in September-December. And of football wagers, there appeared consensus that about two-thirds were on the NFL and one-third on college contests.
John Sheeran, director of risk and trading for FanDuel, the online market leader in Pennsylvania, said that even though there was lesser collegiate betting action, the experience with betting on in-state teams showed how important it can be.
Of the 12 biggest handles on college games for FanDuel’s Pennsylvania site, six involved action on Penn State. Some states are adopting or considering bans on bets taken on their collegiate teams, as New Jersey has done, and Sheeran said Pennsylvania’s experience should be a lesson to them.
“It’s an opportunity [for revenue] some states are missing out on that they don’t necessarily realize,” Sheeran said. Pennsylvania “is the right model for future states.”
FanDuel’s competitors not daunted by its lead
While Rush Street Interactive was the first online operator in the state with its PlaySugarhouse and BetRivers sites, FanDuel also launched ahead of football season and got in front of some key competitors like DraftKings and FOX Bet. With the strength of its name brand, marketing, and database of longtime fantasy sports participants, FanDuel claimed more than half of the market each month during football season, although its overall share has been falling a bit as competition has increased.
“We knew being late to the game would make it harder to get to the top, but we like the direction it’s going in now,” said Johny Avello, director of sportsbook operations for DraftKings.
DraftKings’ Pennsylvania site, which launched in early November, more than doubled its monthly handle to $35.9 mm in December.
That’s far behind the $154.5 mm of FanDuel, but hardly has Avello pessimistic. Football betting “was pretty much on par” with what was anticipated, and he expects new customers to keep coming aboard, with the help of continued promotions such as its “Break the Book” offer. Running Jan. 17-26, it rewards every Pennsylvania customer with a percentage of free bets tied to the overall volume taking place in the state.
Rush Street Interactive’s two online sites, tied to the Rivers Casino properties in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, have been hovering around $60 mm in combined betting handle monthly through the fall.
“Overall, we’re happy, but we’re never satisfied,” said Mattias Stetz, Rush Street Interactive’s chief operating officer.
He noted that the average amount wagered per game on the NFL outshines that of any other sport, whether pro or collegiate. And in Pennsylvania, the Rush Street sites saw “slightly more hometown favoritism” toward betting on the Eagles and Steelers.
Retail sportsbooks glad they expanded
Onsite, at the Rivers Philadelphia property, Llewellyn said he saw that bias change a bit over time.
A year ago, “with it being the first chance to bet legally, you had a lot more betting going toward the local teams,” he said. “Over the course of the year, guests have become more educated and they bet more with their head than their heart now. I think that’s the natural progression of things.”
Like the Parx Casino did last summer, both Rivers properties invested heavily in expanding their sportsbooks during the football season. The casinos have found it to be a worthwhile investment, they say.
“This place was electric on Saturdays and Sundays, and obviously also for Monday and Thursday night games,” said Andre Barnabei, vice president of gaming at Rivers Pittsburgh.
The Rivers properties and Parx all saw retail betting handle of about $7 mm to $8 mm during the fall, while summer months were more like $4 mm to $5 mm.
“I would say it either met or exceeded our expectations,” Barnabei said of the fall.
Next NFL season to have more online competition
Penn National Gaming’s properties in the state, the Hollywood and Meadows racetrack casinos, generated smaller volume in the fall. Hollywood, in Dauphin County, is more distant from the heavy concentration of professional team sports fans, and the Meadows only got underway in October.
Still, football betting represented close to 65% of fall betting for Penn National’s properties in Pennsylvania as well as in five other states, said Scot McClintic, the company’s head of sportsbook.
He said it made a big difference at Hollywood when more than 15 kiosks were installed at the same time William Hill was dropped as its partner operating the sportsbook.
“There’s so much you can do as a bettor with the kiosks at your fingertips,” he said, which is what the other brick-and-mortar sportsbooks across the state have also discovered, with kiosk volume heavier than that taking place at betting windows.
While it has a partnership with DraftKings that enables the latter to run its online site through the Meadows, Penn National is still developing its own online platform that will be attached to Hollywood and its properties in other states.
McClintic said the goal is to have that operating before the next NFL season begins. There could be additional new sites by then as well, whether from Wind Creek Bethlehem, Harrah’s, or Philadelphia Live!, as the past fall only reinforced what a significant target that should be.
“In Pennsylvania, the NFL is very much the bet-on sport,” McClintic said.