Wind gusts of up to 40 mph whipped along the Boardwalk in Atlantic City on Friday, leaving pedestrians with a light touch of sand on their lips as they wandered. With temperatures struggling to reach 50 degrees, a lengthy walk would have been, well, Madness.
But there was ample reason for visitors to descend on the island for the past four days: For the first time, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was available as the subject of legal sports betting in New Jersey (and six other states that have joined Nevada’s bandwagon in the past year).
And descend they did, as each sportsbook — which didn’t even exist in this form a year ago — welcomed healthy crowds for 16 games on both Thursday and Friday and eight games on both Saturday and Sunday.
“Everything this year is completely different,” Resorts CEO Mark Giannantonio told NJ Online Gambling as we sat at a restaurant close enough to the casino’s DraftKings Sportsbook to hear occasional roars for bet-altering baskets. “We invested millions of dollars in the sportsbook, in this restaurant, and this sushi bar.”
Giannantonio noted the uniqueness of the sports betting crowd.
“It’s completely different” compared to a casino crowd, Giannantonio said. “Certainly we are getting a younger crowd. March Madness is gigantic, but unfortunately New Jersey was never able to fully take advantage of it before. We could show the games before, but it was never this dynamic.”
Surveying the March Madness crowds
March Madness visits last week to the Meadowlands Racetrack and to Atlantic City casinos Resorts, Ocean Resort (pictured at top of article), and Golden Nugget led to the same observation: The crowd is quite diverse in terms of age, race, ethnicity, and perceived affluence of the gamblers.
But there was one way in which the gatherings weren’t diverse: gender. Resorts actually had the high-water mark of five females (not counting employees) — although two of them left within seconds after I tweeted out that figure. I found two each at Resorts, Golden Nugget, and the Meadowlands in mid-tournament frenzy on Thursday and Friday.
The William Hill sportsbook at Monmouth Park was somewhat of an exception, although even there most of the women were accompanied by men. It will be interesting to see if any tracks or casinos will find a way to balance the scales a bit.
In the meantime, another common denominator was that while each sportsbook drew good crowds, there wasn’t such a mob that it might turn would-be gamblers away not only for that day but in the future.
Giannantonio said that his casino’s partnership with DraftKings allowed Resorts to lean on its partner in terms of projecting crowd sizes. Many of that sportsbook’s tables were reserved for DraftKings VIPs and/or Resorts VIPs.
“There’s no sport like March Madness,” Giannantonio added. “As great as the NFL is and the playoffs become, this is bigger. The crowds come in the morning and it runs throughout the day into the evening, with so many options to bet on.”
Eavesdropping on sportsbook customers revealed a great deal of enthusiasm for bets on just the first half total score, as well as doubling down or hedging at halftime.
While the popularity of March Madness visits to casinos has been gratifying to operators — this in spite of the fact that there are more than a dozen legal sports betting apps that would allow the same patrons to bet at home — it also has been no surprise.
As soon as the U.S. Supreme Court last May struck down a 26-year-old federal law that offered a near-monopoly on all sports betting to Nevada, “We knew it would be gigantic,” Giannantonio said.
How gigantic? There was $320 million wagered legally in the state in the “slow,” 28-day month of February. The high-water mark so far has been the $385 million bet in January. As for casino and racetrack gross revenues from sports betting, that has ranged from a collective $12 million to $24 million over the past six months.
Giannantonio said there has been an uptick in both casino hotel room sales as well as in the room rate his hotel can charge, which is one of the many secondary economic benefits from the legalization of sports betting.
On a down note, the NCAA’s Sunday schedule was not ideal for Atlantic City casinos. There was only one game apiece held in the noon and 3 p.m. windows. That set up a much busier evening with six games, but a 9:40 p.m. game between 12th-seeded Oregon and 13th-seeded Cal-Irvine didn’t figure to fill any of the sportsbooks til midnight.