David PurdumESPN Staff Writer
TUNICA, Miss. — To get to the new sportsbook at 1st Jackpot casino, the security guard standing at the entrance smiles and says to simply follow the big, yellow footprints.
The 35 promotional footprints that are stuck on the worn, grey carpet lead you through the heart of the casino, weaving in and out of rows of blinking slot machines and past the cashier’s cage, while dodging cocktail waitresses with trays holding way too many drinks. At this point, it feels a lot like Las Vegas.
Then, you get to the sportsbook.
It’s prime time on the first college football Saturday since sports betting became legal in SEC-crazy Mississippi, but no one is in line to bet. One young woman in a referee shirt is manning the betting counter, which is the size of a small carnival stand. She looks bored. The most jarring evidence that this is nothing like Las Vegas sports betting, though, comes 30 minutes later.
Michigan-Notre Dame is on the featured TV, a wall-sized projection screen located behind the half-moon-shaped bar, above a music stage. It’s late in the second quarter, and the Wolverines’ Ambry Thomas is racing through the Irish kick coverage for a 99-yard touchdown return that gets Michigan back in the game and set ups an intriguing second half for the few dozen patrons hanging around the bar next to the sportsbook.
Somewhat out of nowhere, as the second half is getting ready to kick off, the game disappears off the screen, replaced by a pink, almost psychedelic backdrop, and the 1-900 Band begins to set up. The game never reappears.
With all due respect to the “best wedding reception band in Memphis,” Michigan-Notre Dame is a marquee game on this opening Saturday, and Tim Maclin, who made the nearly three-hour trip down from Searcy, Arkansas, has a two-team parlay riding on the underdog Fighting Irish. But on this night, nothing can stop 1-900 from taking center stage.
“Welcome to Mississippi,” Maclin says in disgust.
This summer, Mississippi became the third state — and first in SEC country — to allow Las Vegas-style sports betting since May, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, the federal statute that had restricted legal sports betting to primarily Nevada for 26 years. Two months after the decision, sportsbooks opened in casinos along the Gulf Coast in Biloxi and in the northwest corner of the state in Tunica.
Labor Day weekend was the new Magnolia State bookmakers’ first real test.
The addition of sports betting added to the buzz on what was already a busy few days at the Gold Strike Casino Resort and across the parking lot at the neighboring Horseshoe. Both hotels were sold out through the holiday weekend, and some customers were told comps were not available due to high demand.
Early Saturday morning at Gold Strike, bettors from Nashville to New Orleans stand in a line that stretches outside of the tiny new sportsbook and into the hotel lobby. It is a male-dominated, diverse crowd, littered with Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State gear. Tunica is less than two hours away from the Rebels’ Oxford campus, four hours from the Crimson Tide’s home in Tuscaloosa and three hours from Starkville, where the Bulldogs reside. They all want to get to the counter to get their bets in before the 11 a.m. kickoffs.
The sportsbook at the Gold Strike is crammed into a small room next to the Pickle & Jam deli. The betting counter is maybe 10-feet long, with only two tellers taking bets this morning. In between families eating breakfast, there are some roped off sitting areas in front of moderate-sized TVs that were capable of holding maybe a dozen sports bettors, if that many.
Despite the cramped space and limited staffing, the lines move quickly. It takes no more than 20 minutes to get from the back to the counter. The scene is similar next door at the new book at the Horseshoe casino, where a former bellman is among the new ticket writers taking bets.
An interested man, who asks to only be referred to as “Patterson,” says he’s bet with a local bookie out of Memphis off and on over the years. Patterson claims he’s an experienced and successful sports bettor, but then adds that he’s planning to bet on the New York Jets to win the Super Bowl. Another bettor struggles to figure out what the odds meant on the over and under on season-win totals for NFL teams, and others confuses the first-half line with the full-game point spread.
The bettors aren’t the only ones who are green, though — so are some of the bookmakers.
One of initial hurdles in expanding legal sports betting in the U.S. has been a lack of experienced candidates. For decades, bookmaking has only been an accepted profession in Nevada. In almost any other state, they’re looked at as criminals. Some American bookmakers moved to the Caribbean to work for offshore sportsbooks, but having that on the résumé can make it difficult to get a gaming license.
Gaming industry veteran Chris McConnell, 60, an Air Force veteran who worked in nuclear weapons security, was hired this summer to run the sportsbook at the Horseshoe. He was living in Amarillo, Texas, and was paying close attention this spring as New Jersey fought the NCAA, NFL and other major professional sports leagues all the way to the Supreme Court.
“We updated our résumés on [the employment website] Indeed,” McConnell said, while puffing on a cigar Friday night, “and all of sudden after the ruling, we started getting like 900 views.”
To start, McConnell has a staff of around 15 people. Training just ended a few weeks ago, and some had to be taught what betting the money line meant, a wager on the odds for a team to win straight up and the most common way to bet on baseball.
Some Tunica casinos have considered building extravagant sportsbooks like you see in Las Vegas, with mega-TVs stretching from wall to wall and stadium seating. That’s a ways down the road, though.
Similar to the setup at Gold Strike, “The Book” at the Horseshoe is wedged into a corner between a heavily populated poker room and small bar.
“It’s kind of like the size of my kitchen,” said Fast Eddie McKinney, an avid sports bettor from northern Mississippi, who was at the Horseshoe on Saturday afternoon to bet on an MLS game. “We have big kitchens in the south, though.”
Sam’s Town casino, which is about a 15-minute drive from the Gold Strike and the Horseshoe, has allocated the most space to its sportsbook in Tunica. The book is located on the second floor, available by elevator or escalator. Roughly 40 comfortable leather chairs face a wall featuring 14 quality TVs, with more screens scattered across the open room. The betting counter is larger too and could easily hold eight or 10 betting windows, although only a few ticket writers were on hand Saturday morning.
Just minutes before the early games kicked off, a front-row seat was available. The Ole Miss-Texas Tech game was honored with sound, and there was action on the Rebels.
Delaware and New Jersey — the first two new states this summer to get into the bookmaking game ahead of Mississippi — each prohibit betting on in-state collegiate teams. There are no such restrictions in Mississippi. The Rebels and Bulldogs are fair game.
A young patron in an Ole Miss hat jumped up and screamed at the TV, when Ole Miss scored on its opening drive. A few minutes later, he was back up celebrating after Texas Tech answered with a touchdown. He had the over.
The atmosphere was relaxed and tame at Sam’s Town, overall, nothing like Las Vegas — and that isn’t a knock. There were plenty of perks to Tunica sports betting. Try finding a front-row leather chair for free at a Vegas book on a college football Saturday. Plus, parking at the casinos was free, not the case at some Las Vegas casinos these days, and the Horseshoe offers SEC-specific proposition wagers, which are not available in other states.
The Horseshoe also turned its concert venue, Bluesville, into a football watch party with several couches available to VIPs and ample banquet table seating situated toward a stage with three giant projection screens showing the afternoon games. Auburn fans were the loudest among the 50 or so spectators as the Tigers pulled out a late win over Washington.
“Apparently, northern Mississippi does support all the SEC teams,” McConnell said in a text message Sunday morning, adding that he was pleased on the volume of bets and average bet size, but would not comment on how the book fared overall.
“I’m glad it’s a little calmer,” said Hal Wafer, sportsbook supervisor with Las Vegas experience and McConnell’s right-hand man at the Horseshoe.
Back at the 1st Jackpot, on Saturday night before 1-900 was to take to the stage, Maclin is lamenting an overturned Louisville touchdown in the first half. Another losing bet on a day that started out with the 46-year-old restaurant server arriving at the book too late to bet on his strongest play of the day, Maryland over Texas.
“That would have changed my whole day,” Maclin insists.
Maclin says that he has bet with offshore sportsbooks for years but had experienced enough issues that he was willing to make the trek to Tunica. “One time, I ran up my account to $1,000 and the online book said they’d only pay me in Bitcoin,” Maclin said. “And then they charged me $70 to process the transaction.”
Maclin, wearing a red Arkansas Razorbacks hat, is sitting at one of the high-top tables, next to Carl Watkins, 78, a great-grandfather from Oxford, Mississippi, who, on his regular trips to Tunica casinos, charts craps tables on a little piece of paper wadded up in his jeans pocket.
He’s betting sports today and, like Maclin, is also invested in Louisville against Alabama. The sportswriter sitting with them at the table notes the Cardinals are “the sharp side.” Minutes later, Alabama scores on a touchdown pass with nine seconds left in the first half to make it 28-0 Crimson Tide. Maclin heads back to the betting counter.
The gray-haired Watkins, now retired from the construction business, says he has bet with bookies for decades. His first bet, he says, was on the Kansas City Chiefs over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV in 1970.
“Lenny Dawson did it for me,” Watkins says in between sips of sweet tea. “I once won $500 on Nixon winning the presidency. But today, I haven’t hit nothin’ all day.”
The legalization of sports betting in Mississippi has been met with a mix of excitement, relief and trepidation.
“It’s about freaking time they legalized it,” said one of three cousins from Nashville who was standing in line in an Ole Miss T-shirt hoping to bet on the Rebels on Saturday morning at the Gold Strike. He quickly added that he runs a business and didn’t want to use his name, a common theme Saturday. Even though betting on sports at the casinos is now legal in the state, not everyone is comfortable being associated with it.
“It’s the Bible Belt, man,” said McKinney, who spoke openly about his enjoyment of sports betting at the Horseshoe late Saturday afternoon. “To me, this means freedom. It’s a form of entertainment, recreation, something we should be allowed to do.”
Mississippi sports betting is in its infant stage with plenty of room to grow, but Saturday was a promising start. And as one casino executive put it, “I think people are just relieved that they don’t have to bet with a bookie anymore.”