March Madness is the biggest sports betting event of the year.
It’s bigger than the Super Bowl which is a single game whereas the NCAA Tournament is 67 games. Even if you want to say it’s Christmas for the sportsbooks, you wouldn’t be right. Christmas is also just one day. March Madness runs over three weeks.
All the prep and excitement that comes with it is evident on the customer side of the counter. The chorus hits a crescendo for covers and bad beats make for the saddest ballads.
In March 2020, for the first time in its history, March Madness was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. It happened during a span of a few days that saw conference tournaments get axed and the NBA and NHL suspend operations. On March 12, the first casino in PA closed and less than a week later, all of them were shuttered.
Rivers Casino Philadelphia and the road back
No casino in Pennsylvania was closed for more days in 2020 than Rivers Casino Philadelphia due to the City of Philadelphia’s added COVID restrictions.
What does recovery for brick-and-mortar sportsbooks look like? Three months into 2021 and on the second day of the NCAA Tournament might be a good time to get a read on it.
Spring started on March 20 and it almost felt like it outside of Rivers Casino Philadelphia. Only a few clouds dotted a spectacular blue sky, and the weather seemed like spring, except for a bite of cold when the wind blew. Pennsylvanians are used to the “false spring,” the yearly phenomenon in the Commonwealth where you start thinking spring is here, only to be fooled by Mother Nature.
Outside, people were enjoying the day by the Delaware River Trail. Inside of Rivers Casino, a steady crowd filtered past security and temperature screenings. There wasn’t a seat to be had at the Lightning Link slots.
At the BetRivers Sportsbook, one year after the plug was pulled on the NCAA Tournament, a decent sized (masked and socially-distanced crowd) watched the first Saturday games. Jim Llewellyn, manager of BetRivers Sportsbook, was behind the counter with his team taking bets.
For sports bettors, there wasn’t anything false about it. The NCAA Tournament at the sportsbook is back.
We asked Llewellyn about the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
“It was devastating. We were geared up. We had promotions ready and there was a lot of excitement. It’s the longest stretch of high volume business you get concentrated into a period of time that’s more than a day.”
Has a year without March Madness made bettors’ hearts grow fonder?
“I don’t think it could grow fonder,” commented Llewellyn. “I think they were already very fond of it to begin with. It was like a dagger to the heart for us as operators and to guests last year.
“Our guests came back with a vengeance. Our average bets went up when we reopened and we had a really strong year for the time we were open. When we were open, our business volume was exceptional.”
The local teams and the favorites
For the 2021 Big Dance, Llewellyn says he and his team are energized. Starting with the “First Four” on Thursday, he described the betting volume as steady.
With Villanova guard Colin Gillespie out for the season, the majority of the tickets were on Winthrop for the Wildcats’ first-round matchup. Since betting on New Jersey teams is not permitted in the Garden State, people were coming to Rivers Casino Philadelphia to bet on Rutgers who were making their first appearance in the tournament in three decades.
In terms of futures tickets, Llewellyn says Gonzaga is getting the love.
Schools like Oral Roberts are bracket busters, but they get bettors and sportsbook managers like Llewellyn excited.
“There is a lot of electricity in the room and we are very busy leading up to games. Once the games start, it slows down a bit but you still get live bets which is one of the strengths of our system (Kambi).”
Live betting at retail sportsbooks
On Friday night, when No. 4 Oklahoma State trailed No. 15 Liberty, 15-10, I pulled up a PA sports betting app while sitting on my couch and took Oklahoma State on the moneyline. It was one of the few bets I won over the weekend. Online operators share betting splits pregame, but are tight-lipped when it comes to in-game betting.
What is live betting like at a retail sportsbook?
“It’s tough being at home and having all four games on,” explained Llewellyn. “Here, you have them all. Guests come in and place their bets pregame but if something is happening during the game they didn’t expect, they will hedge or double down.
“Live betting is a feature that works very well in the sportsbook. You can hang out at the kiosk and gauge the bets. Live betting is definitely a strength of our system. It’s something that has gained steam from the time we opened.”
Kambi rolled out sports betting kiosks at Rivers Casino Pittsburgh and Rivers Casino Philadelphia (then SugarHouse Casino) in Dec. 2018. Kambi is a B2B sports betting provider that companies like retail sportsbooks use to offer sports betting. Kambi boasts four areas of expertise for its sports betting offering:
- Technical platform
- Odds and trading
- User interface
- Risk management