The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the world off-center. There’s no debating that.
No doubt, then, people are yearning for normalcy — for returning to as close to regular life as possible.
Ironically, for Wildwood Casino, “normalcy” involves changing. It features evolution and expansion. So constructing and opening a new retail sportsbook at the casino in Cripple Creek, Colorado, during the pandemic reflected that normalcy. And it proved that while Wildwood is adhering to health guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, nothing will stop the casino from operating as close to normal as it can.
“For us, yes, we wanted to be able to open for major sports when they return,” said Matt Andrighetti, general manager at Wildwood. “But really it was a sign of completion for us, that we’ve been showing the community and showing our guests that we’re still growing. We pride ourselves on being a casino that’s still growing and advancing in this climate, which is not something people are seeing. And so far, it’s been paying off for us. It’s been very well-received.”
Such an approach is shared by the four brick-and-mortar sports betting operations in Colorado. Even in a pandemic, they have moved forward with retail openings. An added perk: They’ve debuted in time for the return of major sports.
Retail sports betting plans scrapped due to COVID-19
After voters legalized sports betting in Colorado in fall 2019, casinos and sportsbooks worked tirelessly to launch the regulated industry by the following spring. That included rolling out online sportsbooks as well as opening retail operations.
For months, May 1 was the target date, one eventually met by a handful of mobile operators. Plans for brick-and-mortars, however, were shelved as the coronavirus pandemic struck in March. Any expectations about the initial wave of Colorado sports betting were shot.
“As soon as the pandemic hit, it’s really hard to make projections and models based on anything,” said Andrighetti, whose retail sportsbook opened in mid-July. “With July 15, we opened just prior to major league sports betting. We knew it was going to be kind of a slow creep to build the market. Everything that we were thinking about in January and February just wasn’t going to be the case.”
“When leagues announced an indefinite halt in play, we knew we had to act fast, pivot strategies and explore different opportunities to innovate,” added Matt Kalish, co-founder and president of DraftKings North America, which opened a DraftKings Sportsbook brick-and-mortar at Mardi Gras Casino in Black Hawk.
Little hesitation on opening Colorado retail sportsbooks
Despite the fact that every casino across the country was shuttered, operators in Colorado plugged along. They still had lofty goals for the soon-to-launch CO wagering industry, which, of course, included retail sports betting.
When time May 1 rolled around, casinos in the state remained closed, though several online sportsbooks received the green light to launch. As for brick-and-mortars, as Andrighetti put it, “We redefined things and decided it was best for us to take our time, get things put in, put a good product out rather than have something come into the market that’s not going to meet our expectations.”
That was a sentiment shared by other properties. And no doubt these active retail sportsbook operators shared the same thought: launch in time for the return of major sports.
“I don’t believe we needed it for the month of June,” Sean Demeule, vice president and general manager at Ameristar Casino, said of his sportsbook, “when there was only table tennis and Korean baseball to bet on. But as the big sports came back, we wanted to make sure we had an offering for our guests who were interested in taking part in that.”
Major sports was a driving force in opening retail
DraftKings welcomed the public on July 10, just a few weeks before MLB returned to action, followed soon after by the NBA and NHL. The opening also came shortly after Mardi Gras reopened for business.
It should come as no surprise that this timing was no coincidence, as Kalish noted the reopening “aligned well with the return of major sports leagues.
“Initially, sports wagering options were limited to sports like UFC, PGA and MLS,” he said. “Now, the MLB and the NBA have resumed play. We have certainly found that there is pent-up demand from sports fans in Colorado, who are eager to see their favorite sport come back and engage with DraftKings Sportsbook at Mardi Gras Casino.”
Across the nation, Kalish continued, sports fans “are hungry for any live sports content worldwide.” Of course, the strongest craving was for major sports. And four retail sportsbooks capitalized by opening their doors in time for their return. Ameristar, whose parent company is Penn National, was among them.
“Penn’s a big company; we have lots of sister properties out there, lots of folks who have been operating a sportsbook for weeks, months, years before the pandemic,” said Demeule, whose temporary brick-and-mortar is expected to give way to a permanent Barstool Sports-branded space this fall. “And we heard from states that had opened back up that there was not a ton of volume because there was no major sports. But we knew that with the return of baseball, the return of basketball and, knock on wood, the return of football coming up that we’d really want to make sure we had a great offering for all our guests.”
And the importance of getting a retail sportsbook up and running in time for the return of major sports was certainly not lost.
“I think really, in this environment,” Demeule said, “anything we can do to give our guests a reason to come up and visit us — whether it’s great food, a great gaming experience, a great hotel or pool experience and now a great sports betting experience — we want to give folks a reason to come on up and visit us. It’s good for the Colorado economy, it’s good for jobs and it’s good for our team members.”
Public health still top-of-mind for casinos
Each of Colorado’s four retail sportsbooks (Caesars currently only offers self-service kiosks at Isle Casino) opened roughly a month after their respective casino properties returned to action.
Part of that stemmed from the aforementioned patience, making sure the brick-and-mortar experience meets the operator’s standard before taking bets. And part of that revolved around meeting guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For example, Demeule detailed how Ameristar “had gotten very good at and comfortable with our health and safety protocols.” Casino staff cleaned and sanitized machines and installed plexiglass barriers to create social distancing, among other precautionary measures.
“We were comfortable enough with our safety and health protocols,” he added, “that we were comfortable opening the sportsbook when we did.”
Similarly, Wildwood (and no doubt all other casinos) makes a conscious effort to address health concerns. These approaches extend beyond just the casino floor. The sportsbook, as Andrighetti said, “is really just a part of the overall casino experience. … We know what’s at stake. We’re absolutely going to operate responsibly and safely to make sure that we keep our doors open.”
The Wildwood GM likens the return of MLB, NBA and NHL to a “soft launch.” These sports, he noted, do not traditionally attract crowds large enough for casinos to concern themselves with social distancing. In a few weeks, though, that could change.
“Football is going to be the test,” Andrighetti said, “where we’ll have to look and see, ‘How many people do we have back there? How can we control our crowds or anything that may come up with that?’ Like I said, we’re conscious of it, but we haven’t had to deal with it yet.”
Amended expectations set for Colorado retail sports betting
In mid-March, all preconceived notions regarding retail wagering went out the window due to the pandemic. After all, during that time, casinos weren’t even sure when or even if they would reopen, let alone when physical sportsbooks would enter the fold. Now, though, Andrighetti and Demeule maintain sunny dispositions about their respective retail locations.
“With being such a new offering a new environment,” Demeule said, “we really weren’t sure what to expect. But we’ve been pleased with the volume that we’ve seen in the sportsbook to date.”
The public craves normalcy these days. At Wildwood, some bettors got a taste of it as they visited Woody’s Sportsbook to catch a round of the PGA Championship, while others soaked in some MLB action nearby. Providing that sense of normalcy, regardless of how small it is, is a win for Andrighetti.
“We’ve been very comfortable building our business,” he said. “Our expectations sort of had to be redefined. And by no means are we displeased with what the reaction and business has been yet.”
Adapting. That has been key for sportsbook operators. Redefining. Resetting. These actions have helped brick-and-mortars lay their roots. And it will help them flourish moving forward.
“Our goal in every jurisdiction across the US is the same: to earn the long-term loyalty of our customers by providing the best sports betting experience available anywhere, whether on our digital sportsbook or in our retail locations like at Mardi Gras,” Kalish said. “We will keep our ear to the ground in Colorado, listen to our customers, and continue building new experiences to enable fans to engage deeply with the sports they love.”