State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.
IRONTON, Ohio — For a random Sunday afternoon in July, the parking lot is more crowded than you’d expect for a Buffalo Wild Wings in this Rust Belt town of about 10,000 people. Most of the cars here and outside the Taco Bell next door have Kentucky plates, which should surprise nobody.
A walk through both — and the Wendy’s across U.S. 52 — tells the tale of what everyone is doing here.
Kentucky hasn’t launched legal mobile sports betting yet. That will change in September. But since the start of 2023, border towns like this along the Ohio River have been a destination for Bluegrass State denizens itching to put money down on whatever action is on.
And so what I find in these places as the day’s baseball games get underway are clusters of betting refugees working their laptops and phones to place their bets. Some are in groups that have turned the chore of coming here into, if not a tradition (it’s only been seven months) then a fun routine. Others are by themselves by choice. And others still were by themselves until they started seeing the same guys — I pretty much only saw men — and decided to start sitting together, comparing wagers and insights.
This doesn’t take into account people who cross the bridge, pull over, place their bets where the geolocation allows them to, and then go back. Or just sit there on the side of the road watching games on phones or following through the play-by-play animation of their app of choice.
This is how states without legal mobile gambling do it. If they’re close enough, they hang out in a Buffalo Wild Wings or a McDonald’s or the parking lot of a Sheetz gas station betting where they can.
“It’s ridiculous, really, that I have to do this,” Danny Fritzen of Ashland, Kentucky, tells me. “But I love to gamble, and I love sports and my wife is happy to have me out of the house after church.”
A foursome of friends make weekly trek to legal gambling
Fritzen isn’t kidding. Before legal gambling in Ohio, Fritzen and the fellow retirees he’s with used to gather in Fritzen’s basement to watch baseball and drink beer. Then Ohio went live as the NFL playoffs got going, so they decided to take the 15-minute drive across the blue Simeon Willis Bridge to watch and try to figure out this whole in-game betting thing.
They all liked it. Football season gave way to college basketball which gave way to the NBA and NHL playoffs and the baseball season. Fritzen’s wife encouraged it, happy to have the men out from underfoot. Unless someone’s sick or they’ve got some family obligation, they pile into Davey’s Buick (“I don’t drink, so I drive,” he tells me) to have wings and place bets. Customarily, if someone wins big, they cover the check.
“I regret to say that I’ve never gotten to pay for everyone,” Fritzen says.
A lone wolf who likes it that way
Marcus, a 22-year-old construction worker, is by himself in a booth at the Taco Bell with an iPad, an iPhone and a MacBook. He probably wouldn’t be talking to me except that I’m wearing a University of Michigan T-shirt and flip-flops, and this being Ohio he thought that took guts. He doesn’t want to give his last name because he’s been making hundreds of dollars and doesn’t want “the apps” to suddenly shut him out.
He started driving about 30 minutes each way to Ironton during March Madness when he realized he didn’t need to drive 45 minutes to the West Virginia border anymore. He comes up every Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes on Wednesday nights because that’s the day he usually gets out of work early.
“I used to just place a few bets in advance of the games when I visited my girlfriend in Portsmouth, but then at some point I realized the real way to make money off sports betting is to be betting constantly throughout the games,” he says. “If you pay enough attention, the algorithms that shift the odds become predictable — a home run or three-pointer or a big pass reception or pushes the line one way or the other — and leaning into that rather than focusing on the whole game’s outcome is the way to win.”
This may or may not be true, but two bettors sitting nearby are listening carefully. Sometimes other folks try to chat him up; he isn’t interested. “I’m not here to make friends,” he says. “I just want to make money.”
Strangers became a gambling group
Chris, Ryan and Terrell sit together at the Wendy’s seeming like old pals. They met about four months ago. Chris overheard Ryan on his cell taking bet orders from friends who didn’t make the drive. “You’re up here for this, too, huh?” Chris said after Ryan hung up, showing his open FanDuel app.
They lived in opposite directions in Kentucky, but they started planning to meet, usually at the Wendy’s where the food was cheap, but sometimes at other spots in Ironton when the mood struck. One afternoon at the Buffalo Wild Wings, Terrell was by himself at the bar when he won a big bet and heard an excited roar coming from a booth. Chris had made the same winning wager. He went by the join the celebration, was invited to sit down, and suddenly they were a threesome.
Besides for the bonding, they help one another find good betting deals. When they spot a good promotion on one or some worthwhile odds boost offer on another, they pool the information.
“Gambling does bring people together, I think,” Ryan says. “I don’t win much. I usually lose. And that’s true in a poker game, in sports betting, in whatever. But I just like the camaraderie. We all live in small towns in Kentucky. This is our escape.”
The end is nigh as Kentucky legalizes
This won’t last, for better or worse. Kentucky just announced it would launch in September, so going north for the freedom to bet will no longer be necessary.
The Fritzen foursome will certainly revert to his basement where the snacks and beer are cheaper. Marcus will find some fast-food joint with good Wifi on the Kentucky side, especially because mobile sportsbook launches are “full of goodies” in the form of promotions and special offers. And Chris, Ryan and Terrell promise they’ll stay in touch and perhaps meet up somewhere, but their bond has the tenuousness of camp friends at the end of the summer hoping to hold on to the moment but knowing when it’s over, they’ll drift.
The Fritzen Four’s waiter at Buffalo Wild Wings says they’ll be missed. “This thing has made the Sunday shifts a lot more fun,” he tells me. “These folks are really into every play, they order a lot, and they usually tip pretty well. I guess that’ll end soon, huh?”
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