No NFL? No Worries, Say The Pennsylvania Sportsbook Operators

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It has been traditional in Nevada’s sportsbooks to see a wintertime, post-Super Bowl slump, as there’s nothing like football’s overlap with the other major sports in the fall to draw activity.

Now Pennsylvania’s retail sportsbooks and online sites are curious about the extent to which that trend occurs in their new industry, though none seem a great deal concerned.

Some, in fact, are confident the wide menu of what they offer, the popularity of pro and college teams in the state, and the steady attraction of newcomers to the still-growing pastime of legal sports betting will help counter the seasonal decline customary in Las Vegas.

“That town is driven by big tourism,” noted Johnny Avello, director of sportsbook operations for DraftKings, who previously spent most of his career running Las Vegas sportsbooks. “People come in for big events like the Super Bowl, and there’s a lull until the NCAA tournament, but that’s not going to be case in Pennsylvania and other states. There’s a lot still to wager on on a daily basis.”

NBA’s bigger in Philly, NHL in Pittsburgh

Football made up half or more of the betting volume from September-December at Pennsylvania retail and online sites, their managers said. And that was before whatever huge revenue boost the Super Bowl provided, which won’t be reported for weeks.

The sportsbooks have an eye now on preparing promotions oriented around March Madness a month and a half away, as the combined betting on its games has historically totaled more than that on the Super Bowl.

Before then, the sportsbooks expect to continue to be strong on NBA basketball, particularly on the eastern side of the state, while the Penguins’ popularity helps drive a higher percentage of hockey betting around Pittsburgh.

“I don’t really expect a plunge,” but more of a modest dip in the weeks ahead, said Jim Llewellyn, sportsbook manager for Rivers Philadelphia. “It will be natural to expect it to drop off some right after the [Super Bowl], but then there’s March Madness, and we’ll do things as well around that to draw them in. I think our following and our market is strong, and [the Rivers sportsbook]is a great social spot for people to meet and come out and watch the game.”

One wild card is the XFL, which starts a 10-game football season Sunday, though none of the teams is Pennsylvania-based and will have much of a local following.

On the other hand, noted FanDuel Director of Risk and Trading John Sheeran, the new league has arranged a strong television lineup and features some new rules that emphasize offense and could enhance entertainment.

“They targeted good proximity to the Super Bowl to try to fill a void,” he said. “It looks like an exciting game — they’re trying to encourage scoring.”

But what will that mean in terms of betting volume compared to NFL games? Sites are already offering Pennsylvanians odds on XFL games, but no operator knows what they can count on. They just know it won’t be anywhere near the action drawn by an Eagles or Steelers contest.

“If it did 10% of what the NFL does, that would be an amazing achievement,” Sheeran observed.

‘There’s always another game tomorrow’

Mattias Stetz, Rush Street Interactive’s chief operating officer, noted that Major League Baseball, once its underway with the Phillies and Pirates, actually generates more revenue over the course of the year than the NFL because there are so many more games.

Combining baseball and March Madness with revenue anticipated from postseason NBA and NHL action, plus the natural growth from customers only just trying legal betting for the first time, there’s little cause for worry, from Stetz’s viewpoint.

“Basically, in the U.S., the four major sports play every day except for two days of the year, the day before and after the MLB All-Star Game,” he pointed out. “There’s always another game tomorrow.”

Yet to be seen is the extent to which PA bettors show an interest in some of the non-major sports. The Australian Open attracted an increase in betting on tennis for the sportsbooks, which would be a big plus for them if it’s a sign of future growth.

“Tennis is the most popular sports bet in the world outside the U.S.,” due to all of the in-game betting action it offers, said Scot McClintic, head of sportsbook for Penn National Gaming, which operates retail sportsbooks at the Hollywood and Meadows racetrack casinos and is preparing an app for launch in August.

“The really cool thing about tennis is the micro markets — who’s going to win the second point of third game of the first set? It’s resolved in like 10 seconds, and now you’ve got funds to wager on something else,” McClintic said.

Are you the one betting now on handball?

A recent UFC pay-per-view bout, meanwhile, drew the biggest crowd that the Pittsburgh Rivers sportsbook has seen since opening. And golf’s Masters tournament will draw a lot of attention the first week of April, with other majors to follow.

And on any sportsbook’s app, there are abundant other options from around the world — soccer, cricket, darts, etc. — that present themselves. No one thinks they’ll ever challenge football’s popularity.

“We took our first handball bet the other day,” Rivers Philadephia’s Llewellyn said with a chuckle.

Even if it’s not the start of a trend, every little bit helps in the weeks after the NFL season ends.

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports

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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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