Can Atlantic City’s New Sportsbooks Handle NFL Gameday Crowds?

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After visiting all eight Atlantic City sportsbooks for an NCAA college football Saturday, I noticed that the seating capacity — perhaps a shade over 1,000 all told — seemed like it might be a tight fit for a good NFL Sunday.

So I returned for yesterday’s 1 p.m. window, which included the “hometown hero” Philadelphia Eagles hosting the also-local New York Jets, the New York Giants at home vs. the Minnesota Vikings, and a host of other early games.

Seats indeed turned out to be at a premium. But it was the layout that made some locations for sports betting more hospitable than others.

Starting at Ocean

I started my five-sportsbook Boardwalk tour at Ocean Resort — $10 to park for non-members compared to $25 at Bally’s. Some of that savings was squandered, however, when I had to fork out a $6.95 fee at the casino ATM. Always get that task done in advance, folks.

The Eagles-Jets audio won the day over the other early games, a good call given the amount of Eagles jerseys in the crowd. Six tellers were at the ready at kickoff time, and there were little to no lines.

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You had to get there earlier to snag a seat, but the layout — it’s in the middle of the casino floor — is such that finding a standing spot without blocking someone’s view is doable. After an early Eagles touchdown produced the expected cheers, and after seeing sporting gear of the Eagles, Jets, Giants, Vikings, Steelers, Ravens, Patriots, Redskins, Bears, Cowboys, and 49ers, I moved on.

Next up, a perfunctory stop at the Hard Rock sportsbook a few minutes away. I say “perfunctory” because that describes the book. It’s really just a lounge/bar area with a few dozen seats — yet a few were empty.

If you’re staying here, this is a modest amenity. If coming from any distance, this is not the one you pick to watch the games. So after seeing the Eagles kick a second point-after-touchdown, it was time to head next door to Resorts.

At Resorts, there’s not as much elbow room or reasonable standing room as at Ocean. At a glance, all the seats seemed to be taken. But … pro tip: As you walk in, on the left near the bar, there are five seats tucked away with two TV screens above. All of those seats were available, and presumably you could get the bartender to select the games of your choice for you. Otherwise, hard to recommend this DraftKings-branded sportsbook to stragglers.

The largest sportsbook — by a lot

After a 36-yard completion by the Eagles, next up was a 15-minute stroll to “The Book” at Bally’s (in the Wild Wild West area).

This is the largest AC sportsbook at more than 15,000 square feet, and noteworthy only in part for its 16 “pour-it-yourself” craft beer taps. The place not only is enormous, it looked like four eight-person tables had been added on the left side, toward the back of the space. There’s plenty of room for more, too, should the need arise.

There is no easier sportsbook to find a standing spot for you and your buddies to take in the games, plus — as with other books — there are adjacent restaurant/bars with tables and views at least of the main games of the day. Recommended.

The last Boardwalk stop is at Tropicana and, full disclosure, I took a “rolling chair” in lieu of the 15-minute walk there. The charming local “driver” tried without success to charge me $15 for a 10-minute ride. Ah, Atlantic City.

It’s easy to find the sportsbook from the Boardwalk, and surprisingly a couple of barstools were unoccupied. Like Ocean, this William Hill sportsbook doesn’t have that “fourth wall,” which makes it aesthetically pleasing.

Aside from the 175 or so seats — well above the city average — there also is plenty of space at the popular Chickie’s and Pete’s dining spot next door, and even a 10 North Lounge with seats having views of the massive, segmented TV screens.

One issue: There are a half-dozen slot machines bordering the back of the open sportsbook area. None were being played, but all were occupied by football fans. Unless you feel like listening to “DOWN IN FRONT!” chants all afternoon, this eliminates much of what would be a decent-sized standing-room-only section.

The Eagles scored yet another touchdown shortly before halftime, and it was time to hustle over to the Marina District.

Visiting the Marina sportsbooks

Golden Nugget, like Hard Rock, is really too small a spot to be a “destination” for sports bettors. Let’s move on.

After a 10-minute stroll to Harrah’s, I found there were only 60 or seats there — all of them taken. Same issue with the unused slot machine chairs in the back being hijacked by football fans, thus eliminating some standing room. At this sportsbook I even spotted a couple of young men lying on the ground in front of the giant TV screens.

“Moneyline” at Borgata was the final spot of the day (after a somewhat offbeat 10-minute walk across an open field). At a reported $11 million, this is the most expensive construction tab among the eight sportsbooks.

The NFL Sunday crowd takes in the action at Borgata’s $11 mm “Moneyline” sportsbook

The place — right next to the traditional horse racing racebook that is still open for business — is visually appealing, for sure.

But booths located toward the back of the main viewing area and a tightly-packed layout made finding a workable standing-room spot difficult.

Pet peeve: With the Ravens-Steelers game winding down, two TVs each were showing the game, but one feed was several seconds behind the other, offering a welcome feeling of deja vu.

Takeaways

Many of the sportsbook patrons didn’t look or act like hardcore bettors, and a handful of inquiries confirmed my suspicion: Many couples or groups of friends were wrapping up a weekend visit by watching their Eagles on what for them is just a “nice sports bar.”

The Eagles’ blowout win frankly was deathly dull, and I noticed something else compared to March Madness at the Meadowlands Racetrack, for instance — where it seemed as if nearly every visitor had some serious cash at stake.

The NCAA and their TV partners stagger the timing of the early-round games in particular, so starting about two hours into the day, there are a series of intense bursts of energy like one sees down the stretch before a horse racing crowd.

It’s nearly three hours before the “moment of truth” comes in the NFL, though, and the significant number of non-bettors at the sportsbooks are comparatively much more passive. Then once the first wave of games ends, it’s another few hours without a full-game betting resolution. So the buzz wasn’t to the level I had expected.

Of course, patrons can make in-game bets and/or simply legally wager on their smartphones. But while there were few if any lines at the various teller windows, it was impossible to tell whether visitors were making extra bets or texting significant others.

Borgata was asking $75 per person for a reservation for food and drink service at VIP tables, while others sought $50. If that price doesn’t make you wince, then a reservation is worth it.

Bally’s has five “Fan Caves” that hold up to 16 or 24 people, which makes it the ideal place for bachelor parties or reunions. And even if you don’t need anything like that — even if it’s just you and a friend ducking in from the Boardwalk to catch the end of some NFL games — this sportsbook seems like the best bet in Atlantic City.

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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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