The Circa casino in downtown Las Vegas, which houses the world’s largest sportsbook, has a 120-by-40-foot television screen, three levels of stadium-style seating, and a pool area with an even bigger screen where you can rent a cabana for $500 per day.
When I went to the Circa this past Sunday for eight hours of manic football betting, the clientele was mostly made up of young, sweaty men in poorly fitted football jerseys, soft shorts they could have bought off Instagram, and baseball caps that they wore backward.
The Circa opened its doors two years ago as “downtown’s first from-the-ground-up hotel-casino in nearly four decades,” according to the Nevada Independent. (Some of the older casinos, such as the Golden Nugget and Binion’s, are located downtown, while the luxury mega-resorts, such as the Bellagio and the Venetian, are located on the Strip.)
For a variety of reasons, the concept of a casino based on a sportsbook may appear to be a bad one: in 2021, sports bets accounted for less than 1.5 percent of total gambling income at a typical Las Vegas Strip casino, while slots accounted for about sixty percent. When every square foot of a casino floor is designed to make money, building massive rooms where dudes watch the N.F.L. for hours just to sweat out a single twenty-dollar bet seems far less logical than sticking with slot machines, which get bettors pumping in money at a much faster clip, and usually at much worse odds.
The Circa debuted at a time when online sports betting, which is now legal in over twenty states and the District of Columbia, was sweeping the country. This meant that the Circa was not only up against well-funded competitors like OKBET Casino, FanDuel, and Caesars, but it was also attempting to promote an in-person experience that may be horribly out of date.
For four of my friends and me, reserving one of Circa’s “Millionaire’s Row” football-watching booths on an N.F.L. Sunday needed a $250 drink-and-food minimum, with a mandated $500 tip. Instead of placing bets on our phones in front of our own televisions, on our own sofas, we had to wait in line at a window. Some new advances in sports gambling, like as live betting, which allows you to gamble in the middle of a game, and complicated parlays, which allow you to put together numerous exotic bets for one large payout, are more difficult to get at a brick-and-mortar casino like the Circa.
On an app, you may also wager on anything from South American soccer leagues and worldwide cricket events to political contests, the majority of which were not available at the Circa sportsbook or the other Las Vegas casinos.
Derek Stevens, the Circa’s owner, has been secretive about why he established this facility in interviews and in the press. But here’s my theory: Stevens believes, maybe accurately, that universal legalization of sports betting would bring what was formerly a barely hidden society fully into the light. Betting apps aren’t truly his competitors, but rather client-outreach vehicles that may help draw consumers into his casinos, especially during big events like March Madness and the Super Bowl.
He has essentially built the Disney World of sports gambling—a location where huge groups of individuals travel a few times in a lifetime and splurge on everything from bets to cabanas and spa packages. All he needs for the vision to function is a country of sports bettors willing to open their wallets.
Creating a nation of sports bettors would probably need the cooperation of the country’s most populated state. (Las Vegas received 30% of its tourists from California last year.) The state has two sports betting legalization propositions on the November ballot. Proposition 26 would enable sports betting, but only at tribal casinos and racetracks. Proposition 27 would legalize online sports betting, and its passage might result in something like to the app-based, extensively advertised gambling blitzes witnessed in New York and New Jersey.
Both backers and opponents of both propositions have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to flood Californians with advertisements, causing voter uncertainty. Nobody appears to know which proposals accomplish what, which are backed by tribes—an key political worry, particularly in the progressive nonprofit space—or even what the measures would really do.
The YESon27 website, for example, says almost nothing about sports gambling. Instead, it focuses almost entirely on the money that the bill would raise to alleviate homelessness through a monthly ten-percent state tax on sports betting: the funds would first be used to cover regulatory costs, but the remaining eighty-five percent would go toward addressing homelessness, and the remaining fifteen percent would be distributed to Native American tribes that are not involved in sports betting.
The majority of the money raised to defeat Prop 27 has come from gaming tribes that operate casinos, who, along with a broad coalition that includes the California Democratic and Republican parties, have raised concerns ranging from the addictive properties of gambling on your phone to tribal sovereignty issues.
Their reasoning is based on the notion that internet gambling is far worse than going to a casino in person, which is, of course, perfectly lawful. In fact, the major gaming tribes appear to be suggesting that in-person betting is so good that everyone should support Prop 26 instead and legalize sports gambling—but only at racetracks and, of course, their casinos.
It’s all a little ridiculous and deceptive. One side invokes the homeless problem to justify allowing sports betting apps, while the other claims that they alone can deliver a secure gaming experience. Neither initiative is performing well in the polls—a recent U.C. Berkeley survey found that just 27% of people favor Prop 27, which is only slightly better than 31% of prospective voters who support Prop 26. Proponents of Prop 27, including major app firms like FanDuel and DraftKings, have mainly given up and will wait until 2024 to try again.
None of this implies that online sports betting is dead in California; rather, it only emphasizes the reality that many strong interests appear to be cornering what they believe would be a lucrative industry. The amount of money at risk, as well as the other states that have already invested, may result in some type of agreement between the tribes and the app-based gambling corporations. The tribes may also spend the next several years attempting to develop their own applications and gain control of the market.
As I noted last year, online sports betting appears to be similar to Robinhood, stock trading applications, and cryptocurrency trading in terms of getting users—usually young, naive men—hooked on losing money. It took roughly a month after legalization for New York State to become the country’s largest sports-betting market; owing to extensive customer-acquisition operations that featured constant marketing and free incentives and bets, state gamblers risked $2.8 billion in the first seven weeks.
According to some research, sports betting is five times more likely to lead to problem gambling than other kinds of gambling. According to other research, internet gambling is more addictive than traditional casino gaming. (However, it should be noted that, at least in California, casinos are helping to spread that story.)
Because the large online-gambling businesses can roll out their services practically quickly after legalization and have a seemingly limitless amount of money for marketing, they will certainly outperform any support system that can be developed to aid addicted bettors.
I’ve spent far too much of my adult life in casinos, cardrooms, and sportsbooks, where I’ve encountered more than my fair share of compulsive gamblers. I’m still not convinced if app-based sports betting is significantly worse than playing in the Circa sportsbook, where a few steps in either way leads right to a slot machine.
The notion that betting at a racetrack is somehow healthier than betting on your phone doesn’t hold water. Gambling addiction is founded on sensory compulsions in many ways: the scent of the grass at the track, the sound of a roulette ball bouncing over the face of the wheel, the sharp edges of the dice cutting into your fingertips.
It remains to be seen whether the applications can equal the experiences of actual venues meant to drain money from your wallets.
In gaming, there’s an old adage that states you should always think everyone is lying to you. This concept appears to have carried over into conversations about online sports betting, where the only thing you can really believe is that every press release and commercial is explicitly intended at cutting someone into the activity or cutting someone else out.
Instead of cloaking the issue in more palatable talking points like tax revenue and homelessness funding, lawmakers, lobbyists, and companies who want FanDuel and DraftKings in their state may do better to raise the subject directly. Because Americans, on the whole, appear to want to become a nation of sports bettors, Maine, Kansas, Minnesota, and Massachusetts all enacted sports-betting legislation this year.
The will of the men in Instagram shorts with a few disposable dollars to put on a game will be served.