New Jersey Sportsbooks Gearing Up For March Madness Crowds

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Former New Jersey state Senator Ray Lesniak surveyed the landscape at the William Hill Sportsbook at Monmouth Park early Sunday evening, and he liked what he saw.

About 100 sports fans were watching two college basketball conference tournament championships, a PGA Tour final round, and other sporting events. Another 100 or so wandered the spacious area outside the sportsbook with the 80-foot-wide TV screen display.

“This is exactly what I was trying to do,” said Lesniak just before kicking off a signing event for his new book, Beating the Odds, chronicling the eight-year New Jersey sports betting saga that ended with a win last spring at the U.S. Supreme Court level.

“Without sports betting, this place would be empty. It would be barren right now,” Lesniak said. “The whole idea was to bring back jobs.”

lesniak book signing
Former state Senator Ray Lesniak signs a copy of his book at Monmouth Park on Sunday

Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin agreed, saying there were a “few dozen” employees added for the day as March Madness Selection Sunday loomed.

“We didn’t expect a huge crowd today, but we wanted to accommodate those with casual interest,” Drazin said.

Madness begins Tuesday

Now comes the hard part for not only Drazin but also operators of the Meadowlands Racetrack and eight Atlantic City casinos with sportsbooks: how to estimate the size of crowds for a pair of play-in games on both Tuesday and Wednesday night, and then the potential deluge of customers for 10 to 12 hours in a four-day binge that starts around noon on Thursday.

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Drazin says he has the same plan as he did for football playoff games and the Super Bowl.

“We overstaff, and if we don’t have as big a crowd, we send some home,” Drazin said. “I’m not sure about the first few days, but bigger crowds will come for the Sweet 16, the final eight, and the Final Four.”

The Super Bowl proved instructive, but the social dynamics may be different.

“We expected this place to be overflowing [for the Super Bowl],” Drazin said. “And people came in a steady stream throughout the day. We had a good handle.

“But by the time the game was getting going at night, this place was maybe two-thirds filled,” Drazin said. “I think a lot of people go to the same Super Bowl parties every year, and that didn’t change for a lot of them.”

March Madness, however, tends to be alluring to sports fans with the authority — or creativity — to sneak out of the office on Thursday and Friday afternoon.

New Jersey’s sports betting law allows for mobile sports betting — there are now more than a dozen legal options in the state via a smartphone or computer — so any sports bar can be a fan’s virtual sportsbook. But how many will prefer to go to Monmouth Park, or the other brick-and-mortar options, to cavort among a higher percentage of brethren who are as focused on a point spread as they are on who wins the game?

The Jersey ban

Incidentally, the in-state law detail that bans betting on New Jersey school sporting events won’t have much of an overall impact on March Madness. But as it happened, Seton Hall reached the Big East conference tournament final against Villanova on Saturday night.

“Even though we couldn’t take wagering, we had a decent crowd for that game,” Drazin said. “But there were a lot more here for Villanova than I would have thought. I figured here in New Jersey, we’d have more Seton Hall fans.”

And in a stroke of irony, the very first of 67 March Madness games — in the very first year of legal sports wagering in New Jersey — happens to feature the other Garden State squad to make it to The Big Dance.

Fairleigh Dickinson University takes on Prairie View A&M in Dayton on Tuesday night at 6:40 p.m. ET in a “play-in game” between 16th-seeded teams. The winner heads to Salt Lake City on Thursday to take on top-seeded Gonzaga.

But FDU alumni (like me) would have to cross the border into Pennsylvania to make a legal wager on the game. My Knights, by the way, were a 1.5-point favorite in an early line at a Pennsylvania sportsbook.

Photo by Shutterstock.com

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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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