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Technology brings next phase for Las Vegas sportsbooks

29 Aug 2011

By Chris Sieroty
LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931, but it took 20 years before the first sports book opened for business.

Back in 1951, legal sports books were stand-alone shops along the Strip, independent from large casinos. Widely called "turf clubs," they had names like Churchill Downs and Del Mar. Horse racing, boxing and baseball bets were chalked on blackboards.

Fast-forward a half-century: No chalk in sight, football is the top game and sports book operators are mighty relieved that the National Football League player's lockout of 2011 is in their rearview mirror.

Figures released by state gaming regulators show that football bets accounted for $1.19 billion, or 43 percent, of the $2.76 billion wagered on sports in Nevada last year. Most of the money was returned to gamblers as winnings, however. Gross gaming revenues from Nevada sports books were $151.1 million, only 5.5 percent of the total wagered in the state last year.

It's hard to say exactly what the NFL is worth to sports books. Casinos report NFL and college football bets in aggregate, so its impossible to know how much money was bet on what level of the game.

However, $87.5 million was wagered in Nevada on February's Super Bowl game between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, with sports books winning $724,176.

Although football remains the most popular sport in Nevada, basketball ranked second with $803 million, or 30 percent of the total amount wagered, while baseball generated $488 million, or 19 percent, in 2010. The Nevada Gaming Control Board said "other," which includes hockey and soccer, generated nearly $186 million, or 8 percent.

With the NFL regular season just two weeks away, books have already posted odds for the Week 1, division winners and the Super Bowl -- for which Cantor Gaming has Green Bay 5½-points over New Orleans. At the Palms race and sports book, Green Bay at 11-2 is favored to win the Super Bowl, followed by the New England Patriots at 13-2, Pittsburgh Steelers at 11-1 and the San Diego Chargers are listed at 12-1.

Sports book operators expect football to remain the most popular game, but there are few other constants. Industry analysts expect modest growth in sports wagering over the next few years as the Internet and smartphone applications play a larger role in generating handle for Las Vegas-based sports books.

IN THE BEGINNING ...

Today's sports book owners and operators can thank Jackie Gaughan for helping to raise their industry's profile.

Gaughan was the first to open a sports book connected to a hotel. In 1975, Gaughan's Union Plaza Hotel and Casino opened a modest book and began attracting sports gamblers to downtown Las Vegas.

A year later, the Stardust ushered in the modern Las Vegas sports book era by offering a plush environment with plenty of seating space and multiple television sets. Electronic boards replaced the chalkboards.

The opening was anything but modest -- showgirls pulled a horse through the hotel to mark the occasion. The Stardust and its sports book -- known for setting the odds in Nevada -- eventually closed in 2006. The property was later imploded to make way for the now-on-hold Echelon project.

Its legacy was the creation of the sports betting talk show. The Stardust Line debuted on KDWN-AM (920) in 1978 and was heard in 12 states.

With the Stardust's success, sports books began to spread. In the 1980s, the Las Vegas Hilton's "superbook" opened along with a remodeled sports book at Caesars Place. The Mirage had what was considered the most extravagant race and sports book when the property opened in 1989.

Las Vegas Sports Consultants Inc., an oddsmaking company, became a major industry player at the same time. It is now a division of Cantor Gaming.

"The industry is changing," said Vic Salerno, chief executive officer of American Wagering Inc. "It's more automated today. In the old days, the line would originate at the Stardust; now the line originates with sports books in the Caribbean."

Salerno said he was worried that the business is losing its "human element" as a new generation prefers to bet using applications for tablets and smartphones and online.

"How many people do you know that still go into a bank and see a teller?" he asked. "We are going the same way."

Salerno's company, American Wagering, has been busy developing sports betting applications. The Las Vegas-based company, which operates more than 70 Leroy's race and sports books in Nevada, has released wagering applications for the BlackBerry, Android and iPhone, though Android and iPad tablet applications are still being tested.

THE BRITISH HAVE COME

Technology isn't the only dramatic change in the industry. William Hill PLC and Cantor Gaming, both longtime sports books in the United Kingdom, announced their arrival in Nevada by acquiring local companies or taking over management of sports books owned by others.

Cantor Gaming has taken over the sports book in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and several other casinos. The company has generated millions of dollars in annual handle with its In-Running betting application, which lets gamblers place bets before individual plays throughout a game.

The company, an affiliate of the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald LP, has welcomed large wagers and gamblers who use the company's real-time trading technology to hedge bets.

The company was the brainchild of Lee Amaitis, Cantor Fitzgerald's former No. 2 executive and Cantor Gaming's current CEO. While he was based in London, Amaitis envisioned using Cantor Fitzgerald's trading platform to create mobile sports betting.

William Hill entered the Nevada market by spending some $53 million to acquire American Wagering, Brandywine Bookmaking LLC, which operates Lucky's sports books, and Club Cal Neva Satellite Race and Sports Division in Northern Nevada.

The deals are expected to be approved by state gaming regulators next year.

William Hill's website doesn't accept bets from Americans. The company's European customers can wager on baseball and football as well as snooker, rugby and darts.

Analysts said American Wagering's technology made the company an attractive acquisition.

"We are moving toward using more technology, but people still like the big room experience," said David G. Schwartz, director for the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Schwartz said gamblers like flexible betting, either using Cantor's eDeck, smartphone applications or kiosks. The effect on the industry, he said, was smaller sports books that had multiple uses, such as Lagasse's Stadium at the Palazzo.

Both technology and competition are changing the way people bet.

"They are making it easier to bet," Schwartz said. "From my seat on the sidelines, it looks like these two providers are in competition to provide better products and customer experience. These are people who know that they are doing."

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