I walked into SugarHouse Casino on a weekday. The last time I was there I had a Geno’s and played Roulette with Allen Iverson (true story, as I found myself a part of his unlikely 10-man posse). This time I was there to interview Evan Davis, a VP and general counsel at SugarHouse, about their brand new sportsbook… and eat a Geno’s.
The temporary facility, located near the secondary entrance, is filled with large TVs, leather seats and tables and chairs, as one would expect. It’s thoroughly modern-looking, without all the vestiges of some of the old Race and Sports Books you see in other places where you feel compelled to wear a green visor and let it hover over your bet slip. But what matters is a super-large, configurable 14 x 7 LED screen, complemented by (my count) 13 other large screens, four of which display a wide-range betting action set by a combination of third-party data providers and SugarHouse itself. The latter puts its touches on the experience by offering props like a “Philly Special” Super Bowl bet if a quarterback catches a touchdown (one didn’t).
The sportsbook at SugarHouse casino has been open since December 16 and was one of the first to go live for Pennsylvania sports betting. The casino is owned by Rush Street Gaming, which also owns Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. The company, through its subsidiary Rush Street Interactive, already offers a sports betting app that has been live in New Jersey and is expected to launch soon in Pennsylvania, meaning the SugarHouse brand has been one of the unexpected leaders in the legal sports betting market here in the US. You can read our full review of the PlaySugarHouse app here or get a SugarHouse Sportsbook promo code.
I sat down with Davis to talk about the new space, the challenges of launching a sportsbook, how he views online impacting the physical experience, and just how much action lands on the Eagles on game day.
I’m Kyle Scott here at Sugarhouse Casino with Evan Davis, a VP here at Sugarhouse in the sportsbook. Welcome to the site, the show.
Thank you, thanks for coming down here.
Thanks for having us. So this is the spot for now?
This is the spot for now. We opened this just about two months ago and we’re looking to do something a bit more permanent, a bit bigger in another spot elsewhere in the casino. For now we’re really excited to have this spot open and couldn’t be happier with how things have gone so far.
So we’re here because, I always view it as Philly is almost the epicenter of sports betting in a lot of ways, because you have New Jersey is the first state to go live, Pennsylvania is the second major state, so this market is almost like the test market for legalized betting here in the U.S. How has the reception been here? I know there’s been a lot of interest; you were open for the NFL playoffs, the Eagles had a couple of games, the Super Bowl. How has the reception been and the crowds and all of that?
It’s been unbelievable. As you said, Philadelphia is really such a passionate sports town. And it was really important to us that we were the first ones in this Philadelphia area to be able to open a sports book. From the moment we did, we just saw a sense of electricity here that’s really unreal. Constant crowds coming in. The business has been such that we opened with six of these electronic betting kiosks and it quickly expanded to the point where we have 18 of them. To be able to combine that with this area where we’ve got seating for about 75 people, we’ve got food and beverage, you can text your order and somebody will deliver it right to your seat – Geno’s Cheesesteaks, Tacconelli’s Pizza, Hugo’s Frog Bar, just a whole ton of stuff – Miller Lite beer towers have been a popular item in the last couple of months. So to be able to open up when we did at college bowl season, the tail-end of the Eagles season where they were on fire going into the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl, and now to have a stretch run in the NBA coming up, and March Madness is going to be enormous. We couldn’t be more excited by how things have gone so far and what the future looks like going forward.
How has it been on the NFL Sundays during the playoffs? Was this space filled in here?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Definitely.
Standing room only. We saw lines, you know, we moved the lines through pretty quickly because we have six windows going and all the kiosks as well, but a ton of interest. I think both from people who are our customers anyways who might have been here anyways, but now see this as an additional entertainment option for them, as well as people who might have been coming here whether to wager on sports, to watch them. We’ve got this 14×7 LED screen, it’s an awesome viewing experience. Or, sort of all of the above. I think we saw a mix of that customer base.
Do you find new people coming in that might not have come to the casino but are coming here specifically for the sportsbook, and are you able to quantify that, or is that like, you know, you just get the sense that the crowd of people—the new customers you are seeing, I’m sure you’re registering them, you’re getting a sense for who’s new, who’s been here before?
Yeah, so we don’t, this is sort of separate from our players’ cards system right now, but I can tell you just anecdotally the number of people who have come in and said, “Oh, I haven’t been here in a long time,” or “Wow, this place is awesome. I didn’t know, I didn’t realize everything you had here.” People that told us they used to be driving down from wherever they were coming from, going all the way down to Delaware to make NFL parlay bets and now they can just drive five minutes instead of 45 minutes, so to be able to offer that opportunity to everyone in this Philadelphia area when we did, I mean the reception was unbelievable.
What was the action like? Because I’ve heard in some spots in New Jersey you get a lot of action on the Eagles late in the season and in the playoffs. Was there lopsided action on the Philly teams here early and find yourself as a business almost sort of trying to hedge against that? Because you have the local crowd putting presumably outsized wagers on the home team.
So we definitely saw increased interest on the Eagles from the folks that were coming in here to wager. I would say that on most of the NFL games the Eagles were in, probably between like 80-90% of the action that we took on those games was on Philadelphia.
Having said that, that’s one game for us out of a litany of games that we offer action on. Obviously, the entire NFL slate, but we had all of the major sports. We had college basketball, we had NBA action, and now it’s expanded to the point that we have tennis and motorsports and UFC and a ton of European soccer options, so from our standpoint, we’re excited as Philadelphians when the Eagles do well. We’re excited for our customers and our fans and we saw increased interest on them but from our standpoint it’s one game out of a litany.
It probably brings more people in, too.
Yeah, people are here watching the games and cheering on their team. I mean, we have an unbelievable viewing experience here. We also hosted all season long, we hosted the Eagles pregame show from The Fanatic. We’re in Fishtown Hops. We did a viewing party in Fishtown Hops. So I mean we see a ton of Eagles interest. Obviously, last year when they won the Super Bowl this place was on fire every weekend and that just continued and being able to combine sports wagering with that only enhanced the experience.
Now in terms of the lines and the markets, is that set locally? Do you guys set that or do you use a service or data provider that sets the odds, sets the lines for all the boards?
Globally, we have relationships with other companies. Having said that, we play some role in that, so without going into too much detail, it’s sort of all the above to answer your question.
I know in terms of the big picture there’s been a little discussion about the Wire Act and some DOJ stuff that came down over the past couple months from some casino folks in Vegas who maybe have some interest in keeping people in the casino and not wanting online to spread. How do you guys view online betting as a compliment to this space? Because I know SugarHouse has an app in New Jersey, presumably, probably pretty soon in PA. How do you view that kind of balance if you want people to come out and play but also interact with your brand online as well.
So I don’t have any comment on the Wire Act specifically, but as it pertains to your last question, how we view online gaming, what we’ve seen in New Jersey has been unbelievable. I think the numbers coming out of New Jersey right now suggest that roughly two-thirds of the sports wagering that’s done in that state is done online. And one of our affiliates, Rush Street Interactive, has an app, PlaySugarHouse, that’s active in New Jersey and I think it’s a terrific product. So we’re excited for online sports wagering to launch in Pennsylvania. We’re excited to offer a product that’s very similar to the PlaySugarHouse product that’s live in New Jersey and be able to offer that here in Pennsylvania. and I think it’s going to be a complement to what we offer. I think we’re still going to have a lot of people who went to come and enjoy this brick and mortar experience.
It’s the experiential.
Absolutely. You can order all of this food your seat. You can drink a beer. At halftime, you can get up and walk about 50 feet and play some Blackjack if you want to. At the same time, there’s a variety of in-game betting option that isn’t that conducive to being in a brick and mortar environment. Some of it is, not all of it, and so I think when you launch online betting, those in-game betting options are going to become a lot more popular, a lot more prolific.
Something like 70% of the market in Europe is live or in-game props. I feel like I read that somewhere.
When you think about in-game wagering, I think you have to look at it across the spectrum of what that means. So maybe Team X vs. Y and the spread is 6.5 and then one team scores, well there’s still going to be a live bet you can make on that game, but either the spreads are going to move or the odds are going to move on what they pay out. That’s still theoretically and in-game wager, right? As is something like who’s gonna score the next touchdown or who’s gonna, even in tennis who’s gonna win the next point? Something like that it’s only up for a couple of seconds and you’re not gonna be walking up to a betting kiosk to wager on that. So I think we see some of the in-game options that are really conducive to what we offer here in the physical casino and other stuff that’s going to become increasingly popular once we launch the online.
Do you view the online as almost being a conduit to get people in here? They get the experience of playing at home now they decide, hey I want to come out to get the whole experience.
Yeah, I view online as complementary to what we offer here. You know, some people might prefer to stick with one vs. the other, some people might want to experience both of them just depending on what’s convenient for them.
You guys have plans for a different space, is that correct?
Yeah, so we’re looking at building out a bigger space. More televisions, I think even a bigger screen that this one. More windows. More, more, more. You know, right now you have it set up where you can reserve these tables or chairs for key events, the Super Bowl, March Madness. And we want to be able to continue to do that, to sort of create a space where that’s doable as well, so that’s part of the goal here.
What’s been the experience getting this set up, getting it live? It’s new here in PA. Did you look to Vegas? Did you look to New Jersey in terms of designing the space, laying it out, stuff like that?
A little bit. On one hand, we were building a space into the existing casino. So, we had to figure out… Well alright, we’re gonna move some slot machines, where can we move them to?
Slots here? These slots?
There were slots in this area that we basically just moved to other parts of the casino. How does that work? What does that look like? How many individual chairs vs. tables and all those kinds of things. Obviously there’s some models in Vegas and in New Jersey that you can look to, but we’ve always looked at ourselves a little bit uniquely. We design spaces that we think are right. If sometimes it’s what others do, sometimes it’s a little bit different, and we’re gonna do things we think is the right way in a first class environment. Being able to add the physical space on with our team members – we’ve got about 1,500 employees here, who are just the best in the business, they really make this what it is. The sportsbook’s no different. I think if you go up and place a wager with these guys, you’ll catch a sense of personality that might not be the same at a lot of other places. But other than that, to say we’ve been… I don’t know if we were surprised or just ecstatic at the interest that we’ve seen. It’s really run the gamut. It’s not just on the NFL. It’s not just on the Sixers. Right now we’ve got European soccer, the Champions League on. I mean, at 9 AM on a Saturday you wanna watch Premier League games? Most bars aren’t open. We are.
It’s Wednesday afternoon and there’s a line over here of people placing bets at 4.
Yeah, everyone’s got different schedules. We’re open 24/7. The windows are open a good chunk of the day. We’ve got these kiosks that are open 24/7. The kiosks are open around the clock. We actually just put one in the poker room, because I think people in there were kinda looking at maybe… jump over and make a quick bet and come back without missing a blind. We gave them the opportunity to do that. The last two months have been unbelievable. I just couldn’t be more excited for what the future’s gonna hold for sports betting as a whole and certainly for sports betting here at SugarHouse.
Full disclosure: We are an affiliate of legal New Jersey sports betting sites, so we may receive a commission if you use our links.