GRANTVILLE, Pa. — After much public hoopla, Pennsylvania's first legal sports-betting operation got off the ground two weeks ago with understated fanfare, a launch so low-key that a news release was issued only after betting had started.
Pennsylvania gaming regulators and executives of Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, which began accepting bets on Nov. 15, say they are encouraged that the sportsbook so far is drawing a more youthful crowd — a good omen for casinos with an aging audience and flat revenues.
"There is a little bit of a younger skew to the demographic that's coming to that room, which is actually really nice to see," Dan Ihm, Hollywood Casino's general manager, told the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board last week. He said it was "a completely new customer base."
"That's good to know, and good to hear," said Richard G. Jewell, a gaming board member.
On a visit to Hollywood Casino's sportsbook last week, some bettors said the casino near Harrisburg also offered more betting options than illegal bookmakers, and that the casino's advantage was likely to increase in the next few months when the casinos launch online sports wagering. That's a positive sign for casinos and taxing authorities, who hope to capture illegal betting action from neighborhood bookies.
Hollywood Casino was first out of the gate of the five Pennsylvania casinos licensed to offer sports betting because it quickly converted an existing room used for simulcasting horse racing into a sportsbook. Three Philadelphia area casinos with sports-betting licenses — SugarHouse Casino, Parx Casino, and Harrah's Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack — are planning to open in the coming weeks in temporary or permanent lounges.
Hollywood Casino's sportsbook, which retained rows of individual desks originally installed for horse bettors, installed more television screens — they now have 37 — to carry live broadcasts of games, along with a steady diet of horse races. It added two boards displaying betting odds and decorated the room with logos from favorite Pennsylvania teams.
International bookmaker William Hill USA, which operates Hollywood's sportsbook, installed its ticketing machines at the former horse-racing teller windows, where casino employees dressed in referee shirts accept wagers. Bettors lined up before the kickoff of Thursday night's NFL matchup of Dallas and New Orleans, which was favored by more than a touchdown.
Fred Lipkin, Hollywood's vice president of marketing, said that the sportsbook is busy on weekends, when college and professional football games are concentrated, and betting queues form shortly after the doors open at 10 a.m. as patrons stake out prime seats in front of the televisions.
The bettors who hung out Thursday night, when the NFL game between the Cowboys and Saints was the marquee contest, were mostly men, and many seemed older. Lipkin, who has worked at the property for 45 years — long before the casino was added onto the race track in 2008 — recognized many of the bettors as old horse handicappers.
"Hey, David, are you a sports bettor, too?" he said to an older man who came over to say hello.
Some young men arrived to place bets for football games and then departed. Many placed a bet called a parlay, in which a bettor can make a single bet on the outcome of multiple games, winning a bigger potential payout.
Parlay bets are also popular with bookmakers because they generate a larger profit margin for the house. During the first five months of legal sports betting in New Jersey, when bettors wagered $586 million on all contests, sportsbooks won 8.5 percent of the money wagered on parlays, compared to 4.6 percent of the money bet on individual football, baseball, and basketball games.
"Here's a young guy, he's got his parlay card," Lipkin said, pointing to a bettor sitting at one of the desks. "Here's another guy, he's got his dinner, he's going to sit down and study. It's definitely skewing young."
A man and a woman in their 20s — the man wore an Ohio State Buckeyes shirt — were busy studying odds sheets. "These two people, they'd never be playing a slot machine downstairs, just a guess on my part," said Lipkin.
But some old habits are hard to kick. Gaming board members, who toured the facility last week, quizzed Hollywood officials about the sportsbook during a hearing Wednesday over the casino's 10-year license renewal, and board member Sean Logan noted that even the area's nonsmoking section smelled like tobacco.
"Any plan to improve the air-quality system?" Logan asked. "No matter what section you went into, you smell it."
Ihm said that the sportsbook retained the smoking and nonsmoking sections from the horse-racing simulcast area. "Obviously, we didn't want to upset the folks that have been utilizing that room for several years," he said. The experience of smokers and nonsmokers is "something we need to monitor and watch and see how that room evolves."
A man who gave his name only as Ryan, 36, an addiction counselor from Lancaster, said he previously placed sports bets at Delaware casinos or with "a friend" — that is, ahem, an illegal bookie.
"I'm very excited about legal sports betting," he said. "When you bet with a friend, you don't have to have money, and I've seen some people dig themselves deep into a hole. Here, if you don't have the money, you don't bet."
Ryan said he planned to make a series of parlay bets on the weekend's NFL games, starting with last Thursday night's game involving Dallas. Though he detests the Cowboys, he thought they were a good bet as underdogs against the Saints — a wise bet, since the Cowboys won in a 13-10 upset. "Bet with your head, not your heart," he said.
A few rows away, Scott Swartz, a contractor from Hershey, studied the odds sheets along with his wife, Lisa. They are about 50 years old.
"I just sat down and looked over the options," said Swartz. "It's set up a lot like Vegas."
Swartz said he sometimes wagered in Nevada and through a friend. He also said the casino's cash-only policy was a sensible way to manage wagers. "It's good entertainment," he said. "And you're prepaid here."
Lisa, his wife, chimed in: "You don't have to worry about owing a bookie a lot of money at the end of the week."