Retail Sportsbooks Drawing New Investment Despite Being Dwarfed By Online’s Numbers

76% (and growing) of the PA betting handle is online, but casinos like Rivers are spending big on brick-and-mortar sportsbooks anyway.

Though three out of every four dollars wagered legally on sports in Pennsylvania is bet online, it has hardly diminished casinos’ interest in their retail sportsbooks.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The past few weeks and months have marked a surge in the state’s bricks-and-mortar sportsbook development, with more around the corner.

Rivers Casino unveiled a $5 mm permanent sportsbook over the weekend (pictured above) that doubled the size of its temporary operation, which opened in December. Its sister property, SugarHouse Casino, is nearly ready to show off a similar upgrade, though no opening date is yet announced.

Parx Casino spent $10 mm on an even bigger expansion project. Its new sports area debuted Aug. 8, with 150 reclining chairs, a 40-seat bar, and a 156-foot-wide media wall with capacity to show 36 different games.

In July, Presque Isle Downs and Casino opened a sportsbook with 50 TVs and with 50 self-service betting kiosks placed around the Erie County casino. Mount Airy Casino Resort and Mohegan Sun Pocono, meanwhile, both opened their own sportsbooks in September.

The Meadows Racetrack & Casino will be next to get in on the action, with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board scheduled Wednesday to take a vote on licensing applications from the Washington County casino and its online partner, DraftKings. Both could begin operating as soon as this month to take advantage of football season.

The various additions and upgrades mean the state will soon have 10 casinos in which to physically bet on sports, in addition to two off-track betting locations connected to Parx in the Philadelphia area. DraftKings would be the sixth online sports betting operation.

Rivers found plenty of incentive for permanent upgrade

Combined, the existing retail sportsbooks’ handle of $25.8 mm in August represented just 24% of sports wagers, as the four online operators accounted for 76%. The gulf favoring online betting and revenue will likely only keep widening, if New Jersey is any indication with 85% of its wagers placed online.

Just don’t suggest to Bill Keena, general manager of Rivers Casino, that the numbers favoring bets at home on phones and computers indicate Rivers would have been fine sticking with its temporary sportsbook instead of spending millions on an upgrade.

The new facility’s comfy chairs and tables seating 195 in the former Levels Lounge bar area in the casino’s center were all filled Friday night, then again for much of the football action both Saturday and Sunday, and once more for the Steelers’ Monday night game vs. the Bengals.

“It creates a level of excitement in this casino that it hasn’t seen yet,” Keena said Monday afternoon following confetti-filled festivities to formally dedicate the sportsbook. “Just from the pure excitement it adds, it takes us to another level on the whole casino floor.”

The Pittsburgh casino’s sportsbook is unusual, in both its open sight lines (walls holding the large TVs drop down only partway from the ceiling) to all passersby in the casino center and for the location of its ticket counters. The latter are in a separate casino corner a short walk away past slot machines, not immediately in the TV viewing area.

Keena said that considering how new technology has changed the manner of betting, the casino didn’t want to limit seating by placing counters among the chairs, tables, and the 360-degree view of sports action on flat-screen wall TVs perched high around on four sides.

Keena said 75-80% of sports bets within the casino are being made on kiosks. A long line of 27 of those self-service Kambi stations sits adjacent to the viewing area, with sportsbook staff “ambassadors” positioned during busy hours to assist customers new to them.

The casino has expanded its number of sports betting kiosks multiple times this year. It has a total of 33 after opening with six. Six of the 33 are now in other locations away from the sportsbook.

Keena said the arrival of online betting also negated the need for betting windows right where people are sitting and watching.

“With online growing so fast and large, people can sit in the chairs and make bets,” he said.

Some patrons only watch, but wagers keep growing

The plush seats, ability to place food and drink orders where they sit, and vast viewing options on 24 different wall TV screens could be so comfortable that patrons take a seat to enjoy themselves for hours without even making a bet. Keena said that’s no big concern.

“You care about it, but it’s hard to tell if they bet or not. It’s not like they have a sign that says, ‘I just bet,’” he notes. “How do you police it? It’s gonna happen, but it happens in every sportsbook in America.”

Besides, the GM said, the sportsbook’s arrival last year clearly brought in new customers and helped drive up revenue from slots, table games, and food and beverages since then, although there are no specific numbers to cite tied to the sports bettors.

Pocono casino packing them in

Mohegan Sun, a smaller casino lacking the close ties to professional sports fandom of Pittsburgh’s Rivers, still found it worth $1.3 million to invest in construction of its Unibet Sportsbook on top of the $10 million licensing fee it paid. 

It opened Sept. 24 and two nights later was full of Eagles fans chanting after Philadelphia’s win on a Thursday night, said David Parfrey, vice president of marketing. Initial volume at betting windows and six kiosks beside a 28-foot-wide video wall near the casino’s main entrance was “quite strong,” he said.

“We have over 2 million visitors walk through our doors annually, and the new sportsbook we have constructed is yet another amenity we can offer our guests while they enjoy the gaming or entertainment experience across Mohegan Sun Pocono,” Parfrey said, adding that an online operation from its Kindred Group partner lies ahead this fall.

Bigger numbers ahead

Though much of the revenue attention right now is on how far online wagering will drive Pennsylvania’s numbers, it’s certain that from new additions and expansions the retail side will keep growing also.

The $25.8 mm in retail sports wagers in August represented growth of more than $5 mm from July.

The September numbers will get a boost from football, in particular, but also a first full month of the Parx expansion plus partial months of Mohegan Sun and Mount Airy in operation.

October numbers will climb further from the Rivers expansion and, very likely, the SugarHouse expansion and Meadows opening.

Where it all ends up plateauing no one yet knows, but Keena figures it’s worth the investment in a sportsbook to find out.

“We have seen a lot of people we never saw before,” he said.


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