At the cross section of buzzing I-95, Rt. 3 and Rt. 17 in East Rutherford, there lies a vast swamp. Acres upon acres of useless half-land, that gives off quite the peculiar fish smell after every summer rain, dominate the center of what’s known as the Meadowlands District in Bergen and Hudson County.
It’s also known to New Jerseryans as the site of the world’s most renowned sports complex, almost exclusively due to the towering presence of MetLife (formerly Giant) Stadium, where both the New (Jersey) York Giants and Jets host their home games. And unlike many NFL gathering spots, the stadium hardly becomes a barren wasteland during the long off-season, with plenty of fairs, tweeny bopper concerts, and expos to keep locals interested.
Situated around the stadium are two comparative afterthoughts. The first is the much maligned and ironically named American Dream Meadowlands (formerly Xanadu), a constant reminder of New Jersey’s failings that is as much of an eyesore as it is unfinished. There’s been some renewed hope of late for the luxury mall/water park/theme park/aquarium/whatever the hell else the developers think will be fun, but after 14 years of development does anyone really believe it will open its doors in early 2019?
Discounting the now dormant Izod Center, the only other facility at the Meadowlands is one of its oldest monuments: the Meadowlands Racetrack, or the Big M, or suddenly, the future Mecca of New Jersey sports betting.
The class of a dying breed
The Meadowlands currently resides in a sort of peculiar spot. Like just about every racetrack in the country, it has suffered declines, primarily due to disinterest in horse racing among 20 and 30 somethings and the proliferation of casino gambling.
In order to stem the tide, many tracks have embraced the racino model, bolstering purses with slot machine revenue, but the Meadowlands is forbidden to do so. A 2016 attempt to bring a casino to the Meadowlands was struck down by nearly 4-1 via voter referendum, and it could be years before the issue is brought up again, if ever. The opening of full-scale casinos in southern New York, and the looming prospect of a casino in Manhattan only paint the Meadowlands into a more difficult corner.
Without slot and table game revenue being pumped into the facility, purse sizes have declined, live racing dates are mostly limited to Fridays and Saturdays, and top drivers are hesitant to ride their “A” horses at the facility. Yet, when it comes to handle, the Meadowlands is still the King of Harness Racing, demolishing nearby Yonkers Raceway despite the latter generally offering larger purses.
During the summer months, the Meadowlands still thrives, infused by clever casual-friendly events such as the Food Truck Mash-Up, camel races, and of course the Hambletonian, which is arguably the most prestigious leg of harness racing’s triple crown.
An alignment with online racing portal TVG, owned by Paddy Power Betfair also helps matters, especially during those long off-season months when it seems the only people visiting the Big M are stereotypical old-timers and desperados that bet 26 different trifectas every race, and wonder why they didn’t turn a profit when they hit.
Also doesn’t hurt that roughly 15 million people live within 50 miles of the horse track, although that statistic also points to just how far away the Meadowlands is from realizing its cap.
Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural doesn’t seem too concerned about the medium-term survival of his facility, going so far as to encourage New Jersey to wait for more New York casinos to pop up before considering another northern NJ casino referendum vote.
Still, survival should not be the benchmark for this facility, and it won’t be now that legal sports betting is coming to the Meadowlands.
Becoming the Big M once again
Until recently, no one had much of a clue about the Meadowlands’ plans for a sportsbook, only that they’d be involved in the industry once it went live. Weeks had passed after the US Supreme Court struck down PASPA, and mum was the word. Meanwhile, most of the media attention went to the circus show surrounding Monmouth Park, and its back again forth again taunts about launching legal sports betting ahead of legislation and regulation.
Then last Thursday happened, and shockwaves permeated throughout the not-yet-nascent NJ sports betting industry. Betfair US, which is already partnered with industry leading Golden Nugget AC for online gambling in New Jersey, has aligned with the Meadowlands. What’s more, is that daily fantasy powerhouse FanDuel, recently acquired by Paddy Power Betfair, will be the forward facing brand of the Meadowlands’ sports betting efforts.
The implications here are monumental. FanDuel boasts a user database in the millions, with a disportionately high number of them located in NJ, and stands to be a very aggressive participant in the sports betting space. Paddy Power Betfair knows sports betting almost like no other, operating some of the largest sportsbook brands in Europe and listed on the London Stock Exchange.
In terms of brand awareness, the FanDuel/Paddy Power Betfair combo is the Amazon, eBay or Wonder Bread of the sports betting industry.
Details on what the Meadowlands sportsbook will look like are still sparse, and from what I saw on my last visit there was little indication that the initial construction phase had even begun (although it’s somewhat obvious that converting the Victory Sports Bar & Nightclub would be the way to go). Yet, the Meadowlands is committed to offering limited options by mid-summer with a full launch to coincide roughly with the Giants fielding their first kickoff of the 2018 season.
Other questions still linger:
- Will the Meadowlands work out a better strategy for NFL Sundays? Not doing so could potentially cost the sportsbook tons in handle. Right now, the facility is limited to only having its Victory Sports Bar open when there’s a game at MetLife, and no one really goes.
- How much sportsbook revenue will be reinvested in modernizing the facility, in non-gaming events, and in bolstering horse racing purses?
- What role will online play? Certainly, FanDuel will go online with its sports book, but will online be a driver to the land-based facility, much as it is for online gambling and Atlantic City?
Even if the answers to these questions turn out to be less than ideal, there is one undeniable truth: bringing together a dream team consisting of the King of Handle, the Prince of DFS, and one of the most prestigious sports betting operators on the planet, and sticking them in one of the most enviable population centers in the state, will position the Meadowlands as one of the strongest sports betting brands in the country in the immediate, and perhaps as one of the biggest gaming brands in the US, period.
Betting slip with your tailgate party, anyone?
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