ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — A standing-room-only crowd on Super Bowl Sunday rapidly crescendoed as the remaining seconds of the first half slipped away.
“Call a time out!” yelled one exasperated gambler.
Gathered in front of massive TV screens at the Borgata, helpless bettors watched in horror as 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan delivered the coup de grâce to many of their bets by running out the clock to end the first half.
The teams would enter halftime tied 10-10, but for some, so much had already been decided. Every yard and every second was consequential to wagers. The final score of the game seemed to take a back seat to the endless combinations of prop bets and parlays for this diverse cohort of fans in southern New Jersey.
The AC experience
A quick jaunt from Manhattan over the Verrazano bridge is all it takes to be able to legally bet on sports.
But where’s the fun in that?
New Jersey is one of 20 states that currently offer legal and regulated sports betting. It was first legalized by Governor Phil Murphy on June 11, 2018 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to repeal the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.
It’s a new frontier for many, but Atlantic City was built for it.
The Borgata was the first casino in Atlantic City to accept a legal sports bet in June 2018.
Since then, director of race and sports Tom Gable, who began his career with Borgata as a member of their security team, has played an integral role in keeping the casino on the cutting edge of the market. He spoke with The Post before and after Super Bowl 2020 while exuding an energy that’s a cross between Ace Rothstein and Adam Gase.
“We’ve been in the horse racing business since 2003 here,” he said. “We wanted to create a concept here that offered something other than just betting on sports.”
Super Bowl weekend
“This is definitely the most heavily bet game in terms of handle,” Gable told The Post. “This is a good Super Bowl matchup where you have two teams that have a strong national following.”
The hype inside the casino began the day before the big game where fans tested their quarterback skills alongside retired Eagles tight end Brent Celek. Paul Ryan (not the politician) bested over a hundred entrants and took home the trophy and $5,000. Pop-up games were scattered throughout, creating a jovial, carnival-esque atmosphere in an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic.
“There’s definitely crossover play between [horse racing and sports betting], but the sports betting demographic skews younger. It’s also nice to see it appeals to both genders. You’ll see bachelorette parties coming in placing bets during their bachelorette parties,” Gable said.
Super Bowl Sunday attracts a more heterogeneous crowd than on a typical Sunday, as well as a large swath of first-time bettors, who have perhaps shied away from the stereotypical race parlor. It’s a stigma Gable says should eventually dissipate with education.
“Really, it’s all about getting people familiar with how to do it since sports betting is so new in this area,” he said. “An event like this, that’s when you see the most novices come in just because, ‘hey, it’s the Super Bowl, you wanna make a bet’ — getting people engaged in that and hopefully seeing them return and making wagers on other things in the future.”
The in-person betting experience
Around 80% of the total handle bet in New Jersey occurs online. Many of those bettors are New Yorkers that “drive into Jersey across the bridge then go back to New York every week,” Gable said.
The rest takes place inside casinos, either at self-serve kiosks or with a cashier at a betting window, which Gable admits can be an intimidating experience for the first-timer about to place a $5 wager. Standing in line, you may be flanked by seasoned gamblers ordering up 15-team cross-sport parlays and sharps wagering five figures with the same ease you order your Starbucks latte each day.
“This venue is [a] very social venue so you have people coming in bringing groups of people, whereas the race and sportsbook is a traditional handicapping venue,” Gable said. “You kinda have both worlds here, it’s really whichever one you prefer.”
In reality, in-person betting is surprisingly painless.
“Our retail business is very strong here. We’re different from everybody else in New Jersey because we’re more like a 50-50 split mobile to retail,” Gable said.
Gable recounted a gentleman who lost a $400,000 teaser during the NFL wild-card weekend that faltered when the Saints lost to the Vikings. He returned and bet $75,000 on the first half of the Eagles-Seahawks game. It hit, and he used his $143,000 winnings on a cross-sport four-team parlay that would have paid out close to $1.2 million.
“Now it’s like 10 o’clock at night and it was a long, long day and we actually had a great day. I remember walking to my car late and I said ‘I should be feeling great but I had this $1.1 million liability hanging over us’,” Gable said. “He literally lost $1.1 million in an NHL shootout (Ducks over Predators). A horrible, horrible beat.”
The Super Bowl attracts a different crowd due in part to the growing popularity of prop bets.
“The Super Bowl is the king of the prop betting universe,” Gable said. “We literally have packets printed of pages of bets you can make, and the popularity of that has really increased this year versus last year.”
Some of the book’s most popular prop bets going into Super Bowl Sunday were surprising.
– Longest punt, over 56.5 yards (loss)
– Total yardage combined on all Chiefs touchdowns, under 59.5 yards (loss)
– Raheem Mostert to score at any time during the game, yes (loss)
There are limitations to what you can and cannot bet. The gaming regulators in the state of New Jersey have not approved any type of entertainment bets, such as the length of the National Anthem. Parlaying props is also not permitted by the casino.
The moments leading up to the game are frenetic. Some people have been camped out in the sportsbook since it opened that morning, eagerly awaiting kickoff.
The second the coin toss was called tails, the entire venue erupted. Throughout the game, every inch and second off the clock affected the outcome of a bet.
“We were sitting in a position where if the exact outcome was a five-point or a six-point victory on either side, that would have cost us another six figures,” Gable said.
With serious money on the line, a relentless cacophony of cheers and screams ensued after every play.
“It certainly helps with fan engagement when you have money on the line,” Gable said. “It keeps your interest a little bit more and obviously, here, the majority of people that are here have something on the line when they’re watching.”
In the end, the Chiefs toppled the 49ers 31-20 in a shocking, fourth-quarter comeback. As a result, Gable says the public, who heavily favored the Chiefs, won big on Sunday. According to ABC News, New Jersey sportsbooks lost $4.2 million to the public.
“We certainly didn’t come out unscathed. Not good results, but good results for the customers and that’s the way it goes sometimes,” Gable said.
“The customers beat you sometimes in this business, and on a day like the Super Bowl that’s the biggest betting day, a lot of people walked out of here flush with cash [Sunday] night.”
With the continued expansion and legalization of betting, New Jersey casinos will have to be agile and innovative to retain customers and appeal to new audiences.
“I don’t know if New York ever does legalize [the] mobile sports component, what kind of effect that will have on the mobile business in New Jersey,” Gable said of the future. “We’re always thinking of ways to make things bigger and better to get more customers engaged, we’ll always look to see where we can expand.”
The variety of sports available to bet on may surprise the public. In addition to NFL, NBA, UFC, EPL, NHL, MLB, college football and college basketball, also available on the menu are bowling, tennis and even eSports (Borgata became the first sportsbook in the country to accept such a wager this past year).
“The women’s World Cup was a big one last summer and it didn’t matter — female or male — you were into the women’s World Cup, so we did a watch party for the finals,” Gable said. “The whole book was full and it was really cool to see that where that’s kinda rare, you have the entire focus on a women’s event. … I think the [2020 Tokyo] Olympics are going to be the same way come the summertime.”
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