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Western Pa. entities preparing for growth of sports betting

7th September, 21:26

Bets rolled in all week to Rivers Casino on Pittsburgh's North Shore for the Steelers' Sunday night game against the New England Patriots, with local gamblers putting early money on the Black and Gold -- giving them a 55% chance of winning, according to the casino.

This is the first full NFL season with legal sports betting available across Pennsylvania and another dozen states -- and counting. That expansion beyond Nevada's borders is expected to draw an additional 1.2 million bettors to sportsbooks across the country compared to last year, according to the American Gaming Association.

Rivers customers have been waiting for this opportunity, said Andre Barnabei, the casino's vice president of gaming.

"From their eyes, this has been a long time coming," Barnabei said. "A lot of our guests are very excited to have the chance to wager here in Pittsburgh. ... We've certainly seen an influx into the building, a younger demographic into the sports areas."

Rivers takes bets on football, baseball, hockey, boxing and basketball. Between November and June, the Pittsburgh casino -- with a view out its front door of Heinz Field, the Steelers' home -- brought in over $58 million from in-person and online sports betting, the second highest among the state's eight legal sportsbooks, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia brought in nearly $72 million over that time.

Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie opened its sportsbook in July, and the Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Washington County has one under construction.

Across the country, about 6.9 million people are expected to bet in-person at casinos this year, compared to 5.7 million people last year, with tens of millions placing bets with friends, participating in pools or wagering online, found a study conducted by the American Gaming Association, a national casino industry trade group based in Washington D.C.

Growth of sports betting

Nevada legalized sports betting in 1949, when the first government-approved sportsbook opened in Las Vegas.

Last year, the action spread nationwide after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned commercial sports betting in most states. New Jersey became the first state to open sportsbooks in June 2018, a month after the court ruling.

To date, sports betting has spread to 13 states: Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

"You've seen pretty tremendous growth in sports betting in a short time," said Casey Clark, AGA's senior vice president of strategic communications.

And that growth is expected to continue with active legislation in Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and California, he said.

Some 38 million adults, or 15% of the U.S. population, plan to bet on NFL games this season, a new AGA study shows. About 1 in 4 Americans said they would bet on NFL games if it was legal and convenient in their state, the study reported.

"Rapid expansion of legal sports betting, I think, gets additional discussion and dialogue ... and you'll start seeing more promotion of what the legal options are, so some of it will be organic as that starts to happen," Clark said.

Clark said a study showed 75% of people who place a bet are more likely to watch a game and 28% said they are more likely to attend a game.

Once legalized sports betting spreads across the country, the NFL could net as much as $2.3 billion in additional profits -- the league in 2018 saw $8.8 billion in national revenue, or $274.3 million for each of its 32 teams -- through increased viewership, higher game attendance and new marketing and advertising deals between casinos and sports teams, the AGA predicted. Should that extra revenue through legal sports betting materialize, that would mean roughly $72 million more a year in profits for the Steelers and other NFL teams.

Neither the Steelers nor the NFL responded to Tribune-Review questions about the potential impact of sports betting.

Prepping in-house, online

Rivers officials are preparing for expected growth among sports bettors through a 5,500-square-foot permanent sportsbooking area that is slated to open by the end of the month, Barnabei said. Until then, guests can use a temporary, 100-seat sports betting area that opened in December.

The $5 million project will be located in the area formerly occupied by Levels Lounge, and will house about 195 seats, along with two 50-foot-by-7-foot LED monitors and two dozen 86-inch flat-screen monitors.

The space is necessary, Barnabei said. Last Super Bowl, despite the Steelers not qualifying for the playoffs, Rivers opened an additional sports betting space in a conference room to accommodate bettors, he said.

"I think it will only grow," Barnabei said. "I think there were still a lot of people that weren't quite aware we were able to wager here at Rivers. ... The level of excitement (guests) felt when they come here ... I see it only increasing in business."

Barnabei added, "At the end of the day, I think if you're from Pittsburgh, you're a Steelers fan. That's who we are down to our core here. I think sports betting is something very familiar to people in this area. It doesn't hurt having the stadium right next door, but I think that group of people would come here if that stadium wasn't right next door."

But for David Schwartz, gaming historian and former director at the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, the impact on casinos will be minimal. He said bets could likely make up 2% of revenues, as seen in Nevada.

"I think generally it's something that adds a little amount of gaming; it's not the thing that would take the place of slot machines," Schwartz said. "A lot of the betting is mobile, so they do it at home."

Implemented at Rivers in late June, online sports wagers at pa.betrivers.com can only be placed by people in Pennsylvania. So far, Rivers has made about $840,000 in net profits from online bets, Pennsylvania Gaming Commission reports.

"We have our Rivers (online betting) site and we've seen ... new guests signing up for accounts on a daily basis," Barnabei said. "We've seen people from all over the area. It's open to anyone within the state lines of Pennsylvania, and it has the same type of offerings here at Rivers that you can wager on."

Casinos across the state have netted nearly $20 million from online sports betting, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission.

In New Jersey, the state at the head of the Supreme Court ruling last year, over 80% of sports bets have been placed over the internet or through a smartphone app, according the Associated Press.

"I think there's going to be a market for both," Barnabei said. "I think that where online offers (bettors) a unique experience, ... having the mobile provides the ability to watch a game in a whole new fashion."

Barnabei added that sitting in a room with other people watching the game cannot be replaced, saying, "The energy inside this building, there's no better place to watch a game."

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