The new William Hill Sports Lounge at the Prudential Center in Newark is a revolutionary step in the intersection of U.S. professional sports and gambling.
But the first thing that Devils fans who arrived on Friday night probably noticed before the Devils upended the Vegas Golden Knights is that this also may be the world’s first “lounge” with no chairs — much less a La-Z-Boy recliner.
The lounge’s debut was not merely low-key, with ubiquitous ex-Devils Ken Daneyko and Chico Resch supplying the celebrity quotient for the ribbon-cutting. It at first seemed like “no-key.” For about the first 15 minutes of the lounge’s existence, nobody stepped forward with an inquiry about how to bet to the more than half-dozen William Hill staffers.
It’s all part of an unusual scenario in New Jersey. While the state has reaped the rewards of online sports betting — which has meant that Devils, Giants, and Jets fans are free to gamble from their seats — a traditional bet at a teller’s window can only be made at a state racetrack or an Atlantic City casino.
So in effect, what the “lounge” does is offer a noticeable advertisement for a British brand that, while also offering brick-and-mortar sports betting at Monmouth Park and Ocean Resort casino, is still working on building brand awareness in the U.S.
Ladies love hockey, too
The first intrepid soul we noticed asking what the William Hill sports betting app is all about was 30-year season ticket holder Jerri Rettig of North Caldwell.
“Devils, football, baseball — the one sport I wouldn’t try is basketball, because I don’t follow it enough,” said Rettig, a former waitress at a sports bar near where the Devils used to hold training camp. “Already when I go to games with one friend, we’ll each pick maybe five players and bet dollars on everything — we bet on offsides, on icing, penalties. I love the whole gambling thing. I’m happy, and I’ll utilize this [sports betting app].”
Rettig’s mom, Mona Berger of Montville, said that she caught the hockey bug by having as her first game the Devils’ first Stanley Cup-winning contest in the Meadowlands in 1995. She said she attends about 20 games per season with her daughter.
Joe Asher, the William Hill US CEO, told NJ Online Gambling that while the company lined up a partnership last season with the Golden Knights — and both they and the Devils incorporate the branded “William Hill Line Change” in the opening minutes — this lounge is a first.
“We think it’s a good way to get people exposed to the William Hill brand, have a drink, and hopefully decide to download the app and start playing with us,” Asher said, adding that he hopes to see an uptick in activity between periods as well.
The lounge is located on the main concourse near Section 18 and the “Fire Lounge,” a.k.a. the east Lounge.
Sean Grayson of West Orange, who downloaded the app before the game at the lounge with the help of a William Hill employee, said that he likes the idea of betting total goals and a variety of other bets to spice up the action.
“I mainly bet on football, but college basketball March Madness is a huge deal,” Grayson said. “I’m more likely to bet on [games] randomly if it’s on TV, because it makes watching worthwhile.”
Unfortunately for Grayson, he missed out on a chance to make some extra money on Friday night. “The Devils tonight — I don’t think they’re going to win so it’s not worth a bet,” he said before the game. “But if they win, it’s great.”
What kind of bet do you make on hockey?
Asher said that William Hill’s experience in Las Vegas showed him that there’s more to the public’s interest in hockey betting than just taking the money line on which team will win. “Total goals by period is a big one, like ‘over’ in the first period,” he said. “It’s funny, because in the end, the empty-net goals always seem to play into the result — and be bad for the house.”
Of course, there are limits on how much handle to expect from hockey wagering.
“Baseball is a great in-play sport because you have nine innings of people betting inning by inning, and natural break points,” Asher said. “You just don’t have that as much in hockey, where the pace is so fast.”
That said, there’s a lot of logic behind William Hill having the partnership with the Devils. For all the justified talk about how massive the illegal sports betting industry is in the U.S., there are plenty of diehard sports fans who would not take such a perceived risk. Those fans have some awareness of the new legality of sports betting in the state, but they may not yet have dipped in their toe online.
William Hill employees at the arena told us that casual fans who attempt to download a sports betting app are liable to simply give up if they run into a technical roadblock. So having someone walk them through the process not only ensures success, but in the case of the casual bettor, it could mean that he or she never bothers signing up for another of the numerous sports betting apps already available in the state.
The down low on downloads
While the sign-up rate for the app before Friday’s game seemed relatively modest — many of those who entered the lounge were simply looking for a place to park their beer and hot dog — the overhead also is low. The plan is to continue staffing the location for the rest of this month’s home Devils schedule, and perhaps concerts, too — although the percentage of potential sports betting app downloaders in those crowds presumably is significantly lower.
Asked if he was a Devils fan, Asher, whose cell phone has a 702 Las Vegas area code, replied, “Golden Knights. But tonight, I’m kind of rooting for the house.”
The NHL’s longstanding participation in the lawsuit against New Jersey’s effort to offer sports betting came to an end when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of New Jersey seven months ago. But based on the way the Devils are now embracing sports betting, it may as well have been seven years ago.
“We are breaking new barriers of the fan experience, and what it means to watch hockey live,” said Devils and Prudential Center President Hugh Weber.