State casinos racing to have sports books ready by September

CHARLES TOWN — Gaming machines will migrate to new locations at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. The slots are on the move because the casino is preparing a new location for its sports book, where customers may hang out, watch big-screen televisions and bet on sports.

“We believe it creates another experience here,” said Scott Saunders, general manager of the casino in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. “We’re excited about what it means to us as a business.”

Each of West Virginia’s five casinos is undergoing this kind of summer construction, hoping to be up and running when football season kicks off Labor Day weekend.

“I believe we can make it,” Saunders said. “We have a great design and construction team in our corporate office. I believe in the timeline. We’re gonna be OK.”

Preparation for West Virginia’s entry into sports betting is taking place in clear view and behind the scenes as casinos enter agreements with national companies to help them manage sports betting and accompanying apps.

Much of what’s ahead will be uncharted territory for the casinos.

“Quite frankly, this is not a big moneymaker for the facilities but there is more excitement and more calls on this issue than any issue I’ve been involved with — and that includes slot machines and table games,” said John Cavacini, president of the West Virginia Gaming and Racing Association.

The state Legislature passed a law legalizing sports gaming this past legislative session. The law anticipated a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which occurred in May.

West Virginia is uniquely positioned in the region with nearly all of its neighboring states yet to join the sports betting frenzy. The exception is Pennsylvania, where a 36-percent tax rate and a $10 million license fee will be passed along to bettors, Cavacini said.

“We’ve got Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland are three big contiguous states from a population standpoint that are not going to be involved with this,” he said. “We’re going to have the rest of this year and all of next year for this on our own before the competition hits.”

Cavacini bragged on West Virginia lawmakers “for having the foresight to look ahead and allow us to get ready this year.”

State Lottery Director Alan Larrick hopes sports betting will buoy the other activities at West Virginia casinos.

“That’s the hope on the sports gaming – that we’re going to get more people into the casinos. Not only are those people going to bet on the games, but they’ll bet on table games, the slots, they’ll spend the night there, have drinks there, buy things at the hotel,” Larrick said.

But amid the excitement over new revenue streams and new customers, it’s hard to project what the impact will be.

“It’s such an unknown,” Larrick said. “I do think it’s going to bring a new demographic to the casinos – a younger player, a more educated player. It’ll just bring different people into the casinos who maybe are not there now.”

The casinos are still guessing about how popular sports betting might become as opposed to gamblers sticking with their unlicensed bookies. Adjustments are likely. Saunders said casinos will constantly be evaluating the business trends, from how to maximize marketing to whether they need to expand facilities.

“We’ll have to figure out the rhythm of our business,” he said.

Construction hasn’t yet started on the sports book lounge at Hollywood Casino. But the casino has decided it will be in a heavily-trafficked area not far from where the sports bar currently sits.

“That can be your place for the afternoon, the day, the evening – whatever time you’re here,” Saunders said.

Building the sports book will require moving slot machines that are already in that area, installing new walls and mounting televisions — lots of televisions.

“There should be no mistaking where the sports book is,” Saunders said.

The casino will get the word out about sports gaming through advertisements on a variety of media platforms. It anticipates drawing crowds not only from West Virginia but also nearby Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

“We’ll be the only sports book in the immediate area,” Saunders said.

The rest of West Virginia’s casinos are on a similar pace, Cavacini said.

The Casino Club at The Greenbrier announced last month it would be using FanDuel as its sports book provider. That includes an onsite wagering platform inside The Casino Club as well as a FanDuel-branded online site and mobile application.

Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort in the Northern Panhandle has been working with contractors to designating sports betting areas within the existing casino, Cavacini said. Mountaineer has been interviewing primary vendors to actually handle the operation of sports betting.

Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino & Resort in Cross Lanes, — both run by Delaware North — may have a slightly later starting date for sports betting than others.

“Delaware North anticipates being open for signing up accounts and signing up patrons early in September (but) they will not be taking live bets until late on in September,” Cavacini said.

“They want to initiate their bricks and mortar business and the mobile business at the same time. The mobile aspects of this operation are huge. So they will open the latter part of September with both in-house betting at the casinos and their app will be working and operational at that time also.”

Cavacini sees the construction on the Mardi Gras sports book area almost every day because his office is on site. “People at Mardis Gras tell me they get at least 15 calls a day,” he said. “From that standpoint, I think it’s great.”

Delaware North has signed its contract with a provider for those two casinos, Cavacini said. Additional televisions and mobile equipment have been ordered for both.

Hollywood Casino in Charles Town soon will be making a similar transformation.

“As time goes by, as mobile gaming comes on, people will kind of figure out how they like to place their bets, where they like to place it from, as long as they’re in the state of West Virginia,” Saunders said. “And we’ll see what the rhythm is to people’s play patterns as this business grows in the state of West Virginia.”

Casinos must be flexible as they learn what customers want. How they look on opening day may change by Year 2.

“We’re not, definitely, going to paint ourselves into a corner and say this is the way it has to be,” Saunders said. “Guests will tell us, we’ll get a lot of feedback, we’ll figure out how it needs to change — and it’ll be kind of organic in how it’s developed.”

Brad McElhinny is a statewide correspondent for Tweet @BradMcElhinny. Email

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