The sportsbook at the Meadows Racetrack and Casino opened for two days of testing under state gaming regulators’ supervision with a quiet, soft launch at 4 p.m. Tuesday – no lines, no hoopla, no celebrities.
That is supposed to change – assuming state approval is received for permanent operation — with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m. Thursday to be attended by former Steelers Mel Blount and Rocky Bleier, ex-Pirate John Candelaria and former Penguins Bryan Trottier and Pierre Larouche.
With its $1.4 mm project converting the former Vibe bar into a sportsbook with five counter windows and 15 TVs, plus 18 self-betting kiosks there and around the casino, the Meadows becomes the 10th Pennsylvania casino with a retail sportsbook and second in the Pittsburgh area.
It is using Kambi to set odds and is partnering with DraftKings for an online operation, for which DraftKings is to seek licensing approval from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board on Oct. 30.
The retail sportsbook’s manager is Atif Chaudry, a 40-year-old native of the Pittsburgh area, who joined the Washington County casino two months ago. He had previously served as one of the supervisors of the sportsbook at the Rivers Casino, 25 miles to the north in Pittsburgh, since it opened last December.
During Tuesday’s soft launch, Penn Bets interviewed Chaudry about the new sportsbook and his observations about the growing industry. (Note: The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)
PB: It seems quiet here for a new opening – was that the intent?
Chaudry: In a soft launch your goal is to make sure all your finances are in order, all your paperwork is in order, and you get your approval from the state. We specifically picked a Tuesday afternoon, with a baseball and hockey game to be played. Your atmosphere [with football] on a Monday night or Thursday night, a Saturday and Sunday, is going to be completely different. I expect this place to be near capacity then.
PB: While it wasn’t crowded here with bettors when you opened, do you know what your first bet taken was?
Chaudry: A guy bet $1,667 to win a thousand dollars on the Penguins tonight. He took the minus-167 on the money line. (Note: The Penguins lost to the Winnipeg Jets.)
What’s the reason for people to come here rather than visit the Rivers to place their sports bet?
Chaudry: We have no betting limits – we’d entertain any single bet. One of the things we’d like to do is cater to high rollers.
PB: I could take out $50k now and walk up to the counter and place any bet?
Chaudry: If you want to bet $50k on a Mexican Soccer League game, we’re unlikely to take that, but if you’re betting on an NFL spread, that’s something we will more than likely take. I’ve talked to guests who plan on spending those kinds of figures, $50k to $100k. The biggest bet I’ve seen at the Rivers is $110k. [The Rivers] was cutting down limits on some certain bettors, and everyone’s getting a fresh start here. We’re entertaining any action.
PB: What else is distinctive?
Chaudry: The ability to earn comps from your players club card for sports bets is also something unique that we do locally. We’ll swipe your card when you place your bet, and our kiosks are also equipped with a spot to swipe your card.
PB: You still seem at a bit of a disadvantage compared to the Rivers, with its location in the middle of Pittsburgh so close to the Steelers and Pirates stadiums. How do you expect to do compared to the Rivers?
Chaudry: It’s absolutely reasonable to hit 33 to 40% of the market share here. One of the advantages we have is if you don’t want to go downtown and necessarily deal with a Steelers game and all of the hubbub going on around that, we’re a very convenient option in a different direction, where you don’t have to pay for parking, and you can get your bets in in a timely matter. Pennsylvania has such a big sports betting market, there’s definitely room for two sportsbooks in Pittsburgh. I think, honestly, competition brings out the best in both properties.
PB: But you’re using Kambi to set odds, just like the Rivers? Does that mean your odds and options will always be the same as theirs?
Chaudry: Very similar.
PB: You won’t change odds from what Kambi gives you, if action is heavy here in one direction?
Chaudry: Not on our end. It’s all computer-generated. If an algorithm says there’s too much action on one side, that’s what’s going to change the odds, identifying a certain amount of liability and what tweak is needed to incentivize guests to bet the other side. Now, with the online site, DraftKings could have different odds a month from now.
PB: If they get their PGCB approval Oct. 30, have they indicated how soon they would be up and running?
Chaudry: Within a week.
PB: So a month from now you’re going to have competition for lines and odds and options, potentially, from your own online partner. Is that a good thing?
Chaudry: We always prefer to have our guests come in and spend time with us, visit us in different departments. There’s a financial agreement in place [to make money from bets taken by DraftKings], but if we can have our guests spend two or three hours here on the property, that’s always going to be beneficial for us.
PB: How much of a sports bettor have you been yourself?
Chaudry: I’m into daily fantasy football, and I’ve fired a few recreational bets in my life.
PB: How’ve you done?
Chaudry: I think I’m nominally ahead, a break-even kind of guy. I’ve really submerged myself into the world of line movement, watching which way it goes. I’ve always considered myself a math/analytics kind of guy, and really, line movement is the essence of sports betting.
PB: In your role now, will you always be hoping for the home teams from Pittsburgh to lose, because the sportsbook will be better off financially?
Chaudry: To a certain extent, but the days of everyone betting on the Steelers has gone away a bit. I saw that happen after the first 60 days of operation at the Rivers, as people started really going with what they felt was the best bet. A recreational bettor might want to bet $20 just to have excitement on the game, always betting on the Steelers, but the sharp bettors or thousand-dollar bettors, those are people who may just be staying away from the Steelers altogether.
PB: In your part of southwestern Pennsylvania, you may be getting some customers making sports bets for the first time. What’s your advice to them?
Chaudry: Number one, before you get to the counter you want to know what to bet on – don’t just go up on a whim and randomly pick a team. I’ve seen it happen every day, guests come up and say “I’ve never made a bet before, what do I do?” and they look at the odds board and they make a decision right there. The people traditionally doing well are using the internet resources, looking at Espn.com all week, finalizing what they want to do, weighing all their options, and then finally coming to a conclusion as to a team they like. The other mistake people make is betting every single game – pick the games you like and stick with those.
PB: What’s the attraction to you in having this job and working with those customers?
Chaudry: It’s a growing industry and fun to be part of something from the ground up. It’s fun to be part of an industry that’s spending money, bringing in new guests. One of my favorite parts of the job is building relationships with regulars, getting to know them, getting to know their betting habits, having a good guest relationship. I consider this what I want to do the rest of my life.