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Circa Sports Makes Illinois Debut At Interesting Time For Gambling Industry

Written By Derek Helling | Updated:
derek stevens talking at circa las vegas construction site

Illinois sports bettors have another legal option. While the growth of the litany of licensed sports betting apps in the state may not move the needle for many residents, the launch of Circa Sports in Illinois might bring something novel to the menu.

Circa Sports CEO Derek Stevens and Vice President of Operations Mike Palm believe their brand offers a unique experience that Illinois bettors have been missing out on. That not only pertains to bettors’ phones but perhaps even more so at The Temporary by American Place casino in Waukegan.

For Circa, the Illinois launch is significant in and of itself. However, it is not happening in a vacuum. It comes as the gambling industry in the United States is facing both challenges and opportunities unlike any others in its past.

Circa Sports makes Illinois its fourth active state

While Circa is pending launch in Kentucky right now, it made Illinois its fourth currently active state by activating its app during the final days of September. The Temporary opened the on-site physical sportsbook with a grand opening ceremony on Oct. 4.

The brick-and-mortar sportsbook is reminiscent of Circa’s awe-inspiring Las Vegas venue in some ways. The location in Waukegan offers both self-service kiosks and ticket windows. Sports fans can watch their bets play out on 36 televisions, some as large as 80 inches.

Illinois is the most robust in terms of sportsbook action out of the four states that Circa currently operates in. In July, for example, the amount of money gambled on sports in Illinois surpassed every other state‘s with legal online wagering except for New York. That included Nevada.

That volume of activity is a clear reason for interest in Illinois on Circa’s part. There is another reason, however, according to Stevens.

Why Circa chose Waukegan for its physical book

Waukegan’s proximity to the third-largest city in the United States is a point of attraction for any entertainment business. However, the opportunity to work with Full House Resorts, which operates The Temporary, was attractive in and of itself for Circa.

In an interview with PlayUSA, Stevens commented:

“One of the things that we liked about this opportunity with Full House is that it is a ground-up license. They have the ability to develop something from the ground up and that gives us the ability to develop something without certain limitations.

We’re not limited by ceiling heights or other infrastructure. It allows us to design what we call a destination type of book. It’s different from when you are trying to fit something into an existing space.”

While the permanent casino for The Temporary in Waukegan is currently slated to open sometime in 2025, Circa believes that its existing location and the online sportsbook deliver great value to bettors now. Stevens suggests that Circa might be able to do that better than anyone else in the state.

Circa Sports Illinois Sportsbook Opens At The Temporary By American Place
Circa Sports Illinois Sportsbook Opens At The Temporary By American Place

Circa Sports CEO believes business model sets them apart

Circa’s pitch to bettors to attract their business is not complicated. It’s all about striving to offer the best prices possible on the bets that people want to make.

Additionally, Circa advertises that it does not limit bettors’ activity in ways other books have in the past. Stevens said:

“When we launched Circa Sports a few years ago, we thought our business model would work in various US markets. We think that value will always be in style. If you bet golf, it’s very apparent. If you bet NASCAR, it’s going to be very apparent when you see the futures prices that Circa Sports puts out.

I think when you’re betting other sports and looking at moneylines, you’ll see the fact that we have tight moneyline splits. You can’t say our lines will always be better. But you can say there’s a pretty good likelihood that one side will be better.

That’s why we say, you ought to have a couple of apps on your phone. Over the course of time, if you keep watching your numbers, you’re going to come out better in the long run. That’s where I think Circa Sports will provide something good for consumers in Illinois.”

While legal Illinois sports betting has been available long enough for bettors to form habits, Stevens doesn’t believe it’s too late to interest Illinoisans in trying out a new experience.

“One thing we have certainly seen in Illinois is a little higher percentage of parlay plays than in other jurisdictions,” Stevens added. “The thing about our model that I think makes us match up with Illinois wonderfully is the fact that we pay true odds on our parlays.

When you look at what a three-leg or five-leg parlay pays on some other books versus what we would pay, true odds and a low-hold model is really the perfect model for a parlay player.”

Circa also enters Illinois on the potential precipice of another opportunity. While there are significant remaining obstacles, the state legislature has considered legalizing real-money online casinos recently. Stevens spoke to that possibility, saying:

“In a broad general sense, I can say that Circa would enjoy the opportunity to evaluate an iGaming component in a state that regulates it. However, the devil is in the details. It depends if you need to have a different skin, what type of relationship you have with the skin provider, etc.”

The details of running a gambling enterprise are several and varied. They demand a lot of attention from people like Stevens in unprecedented ways currently.

Labor issues among top industry concerns

If you ask many people in Palm’s or Stevens’ positions what the greatest challenges to their businesses right now are, labor concerns will reliably be near the top of their lists.

Amid worker shortages at some casinos, workers have already authorized strikes in both Detroit and Las Vegas. For Stevens, that’s just one part of a larger cultural and economic transition in the US. Stevens elaborated:

“This is an unbelievably unique time in US economic history. No one in the workforce had ever seen anything like what happened in 2020 with the pandemic.

When we were building Circa Las Vegas, we talked about worst-case scenarios. Pandemic was never in there. We accelerated our use of some technology that we otherwise might not have.

It permanently changed some things like some people discovered that they can be effective working from home. That was a seismic shift in the workforce.

Now, we have some inflation. Anyone who has been working on a long-term contract basis is going to feel that because their money doesn’t go as far. This is an adjustment period to that. I think the gaming industry is a great industry for people who are looking for careers.”

Palm agreed, adding that the US gambling industry is attractive for workers.

“I think it’s important to understand that there isn’t a high educational barrier to entry in the gaming industry,” Palm said. “The gaming industry in general is not educationally snobbish.

You can come in with a high school degree and land some of the best-paying jobs in the industry. If you’re good with people, there’s a low barrier to entry and a high chance of working your way up.”

One of the areas in which the gambling industry has made unprecedented investments in terms of labor and other costs is technology.

Technology as a tool for gambling companies

The use of artificial intelligence is part of that. Recently, the International Gaming Standards Committee (IGSA) issued guidance on AI’s use.

Also, among the recent gambling-related tools to emerge is Rithmm, which facilitates users building their own sports betting algorithms.

Despite the proliferation of AI, Palm and Stevens do not see it as a threat to their business. Instead, they view it as an opportunity. “I think things still need to evolve,” Stevens conveyed.

“So far, we haven’t had a bot that’s necessarily picking 70% winners. In the sportsbook business, we have to adjust the numbers quickly. I think as AI comes into play and as more groups develop their own systems, effectively that’s just creating the market. Another source of information just adds to it.

From the book side, we’re not overly worried about the unknown here. Our whole goal is to increase the number of wagers we take in order to improve the market. It fits right into the Circa Sports model and it’s why we don’t limit players. We want sharp players.

We want to celebrate and respect the takes that individuals and groups have on games. We want to utilize their information to create a more solid number.”

“If there’s a bot that can pick 90% winners, we want to be the one to take that first bet,” Palm mentioned.

Regulation along with the use of technology remains an area that gambling companies are always monitoring. Palm commented that gambling companies want to make regulators’ jobs as easy for them as possible:

“I think in general the industry is doing a good job of policing itself. Most of our competitors are not trying to hide that they are trying to push their volume to the parlay market with the higher holds.

I would hate to get regulators too in the weeds of what you can offer. I think it’s a bit onerous in some states as it is right now. I would say the industry is very aware of how we want to police ourselves and make things transparent for our customers.”

Amid these challenges and opportunities, Circa Sports is pushing forward to build its business. That now includes legal sports betting in Illinois.

Photo by John Locher / AP Photo
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is the assistant managing editor of PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including finance, regulation, and technology in the gaming industry. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa and resides in Chicago

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