Big City Sports Betting: Inside SugarHouse’s Historic Debut In Philadelphia

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Move over, Las Vegas. On Thursday, Philadelphia took over as the largest city in the U.S. to offer legal sports betting when SugarHouse Casino rolled out its temporary sportsbook.

Las Vegas, ranked 28th in the nation in population with just over 640,000 people according to the U.S. Census’s 2017 estimate, yields to Philadelphia’s sixth-place ranking at almost 1.6 million.

So what kind of fanfare was in the air at SugarHouse, located on Delaware Avenue? Nothing too fancy for this two-day test period; casino officials say they are saving that sort of thing for Saturday’s official state approval and for next spring’s rollout of a permanent sportsbook.

Not a celeb-studded affair

Six SugarHouse regulars were chosen to jointly make the first bets, with a modest line of customers waiting to follow them before the scheduled 2 p.m. launch.

One of the regulars, Kevin Konieczny, said, “I’ve waited 48 years for a Flyer to have close to my last name, that’s why I had to bet them.” He was referring to right wing Travis Konecny, and that “close enough” led to a $200 moneyline bet on the Flyers to spring a mild upset in Edmonton on Friday night and earn him a $230 profit.

George Fill of Flourtown, a Wall Street broker, also went the Flyers route — except he risked $500. He said he had flown out to Las Vegas to see the Flyers top the Golden Knights in the season opener, and he thinks the recent front-office shakeup has the team headed in the right direction.

sugarhouse sports betting george fill
George Fill of Flourtown has 500 reasons to root for the Flyers to win in Edmonton on Friday.

Asked if was likely to reduce his frequency of visits to Atlantic City with the launch of this sportsbook, he replied, “Definitely.”

South Philly’s Nicole Stabile, the lone woman in that group, said she bets regularly on “sports, blackjack, baccarat, you name it.” Stabile added that legal sports betting is a reason for her to visit even more regularly.

sugarhouse sports betting nicole stabile
Nicole Stabile became the first woman to place a wager during the SugarHouse Casino sports betting launch in Philadelphia on Thursday.

Alan Pipkin of the Manayunk section of Philadelphia was first in line after those regulars, and he went a more modest $20 on the Chiefs Thursday night, $20 on the Eagles on Sunday, and a pair of three-team parlays.

The fondness for betting the local team is a reminder that Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware sports betting operators were fortunate that they could not take “futures” bets before the 2017-’18 season on the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl.

Both sides of the state

Both SugarHouse and Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh launched simultaneously on Thursday as the first two legal sportsbooks in Pennsylvania, as both are owned by Rush Street Gaming.

New Jersey casinos and racetracks, while seeing handle rise significantly each month, have been riding a rollercoaster of gross sports betting revenues from $24 million in September to $11 million in October, then back up to $21 million in November figures issued this week.

“Just like with table games, there is a certain amount of volatility with sports betting, and we’ll account for that until we get a handle on the types of bettors we’re going to get,” SugarHouse General Manager Cheryl Duhon said on Thursday. “It will be a learning process at first. The other jurisdictions are seeing promising numbers, and it will be interesting to see how Philadelphia does with so many pro teams here. We’re not in the heart of Philly, but we are in a very populated area where a lot of business people are, and where a lot of the action is.”

Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, located just north of Hershey, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles from the New Jersey border, debuted last month. But in terms of Philly-area venues, SugarHouse is first, having gotten the jump on Parx Casino, located just outside of Philadelphia in Bensalem. Parx officials informed their customers on Thursday to expect a sports betting launch next month.

Online is next

If anyone wonders what sort of digital presence to expect, Duhon said that one can merely look to Play Sugarhouse in New Jersey, which already is off to a running start as one of eight online sports betting sites in the Garden State. That means that whenever the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board sends the green light for online and mobile betting, SugarHouse will be ready statewide.

It’s not clear which will come first in Pennsylvania, between online sports betting and online casino gaming — both of which have been approved but not yet implemented.

“We’d be comfortable if they were to launch simultaneously,” said Duhon.

None of the SugarHouse officials who spoke with Penn Bets would commit to a permanent sportsbook opening date beyond saying “the first half of next year,” although it has been decided that it will be located near the Lucky Red sports bar. A dozen 80-inch screens are planned, Duhon said.

The temporary sportsbook — about half the size of the future book — is adjacent to the Poker Night in America Poker Room, with six betting windows to start and six more more to follow, Duhon said. Self-betting kiosks weren’t operational on Thursday, but will be shortly, she added. Bettors will be able to order a Geno’s Philly cheesesteak or other in-house food options to be delivered to their seat as they watch the games.

The old-fashioned betting sheets at SugarHouse had the week’s NFL and NCAA football slates, as well as soccer games in Germany, Mexico, Italy, Japan, and England — but the offerings were less exotic, for instance, than Monmouth Park, which in June immediately offered Canadian Football League, WNBA, and even Iceland soccer.

“We’re going to open with a fairly robust selection of major sports that most people follow,” SugarHouse Vice President Evan Davis told Penn Bets. “Then sometime subsequent to opening we’ll be offering more options as well. Some of that is pending regulatory approvals, and some is gauging interest.”

The minimum sports bet at SugarHouse is $5, not $2. But free parking — a rarity in a city this size — helps make up for it.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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