A bigger game

What the socially distanced Super Bowl looked like from At-lantic City and on millions of smart phones

Daniel J. Munoz//February 15, 2021//

A bigger game

What the socially distanced Super Bowl looked like from At-lantic City and on millions of smart phones

Daniel J. Munoz//February 15, 2021//

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Early numbers from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement show that patrons bet $117.4 million across 21 online and mobile sportsbooks and 12 retail sportsbooks on Super Bowl LV. Those retail sites are the nine casinos in Atlantic City, the two Monmouth County racetracks and a third in Bergen County. Bettors wagered half of that last year: $54.3 million across 10 retail sportsbooks and 19 online sportsbooks. And last year the state’s gambling establishments actually lost money on the game, paying out $58 million in winnings.

The totals from the Feb. 7 game represents good news for an industry that, according to the American Gaming Association, is likely to contract this year amid COVID-19 business restrictions and a still-struggling economy. Many casino officials, industry insiders and observers say remote gambling amid the pandemic will remain a prominent segment of the business.

And while in-person amenities – indoor and outdoor dining, expanded retail and casino capacity, conferences and conventions and live entertainment – should be available later this year, customers have gotten a taste of online gambling and may see no reason to take a trip to Atlantic City.


“Mobile/Online sports betting currently represents the lion’s share of all sportsbook handle and that is unlikely to change once casinos return to full operations,” Jane Bokunewicz, coordinator at the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University, said in an email.

Stuck at home and “lacking the opportunity to bet among friends,” many customers chose to bet via an online sportsbook. That trend could reverse next year, “but not back to pre-2020 levels … Now that people have had a taste of sportsbooks,” Bokunewicz added.

Online wagering for Super Bowl LV totaled $99.8 million, while the remaining retail sports handle was $17.5 million, according to a spokesperson for the state Attorney General’s office, the parent agency of the Division of Gaming Enforcement.

Last year, the Super Bowl numbers broke down as $40.8 million wagered online and $13.4 million bet at brick-and-mortar retail establishments. Overall in 2020, patrons bet $5.5 billion online and $487 million in person.

In 2019, patrons wagered $3.8 billion via the online and mobile apps, and $747 million at the retail sites. The three-month closure, capacity restrictions and overall anxiety from consumers dragged down the 2020 numbers.

But online gambling soared, while the casinos posted a combined double-digit loss between 2019 and 2020 thanks to the pandemic and the decrease in retail customers.


“Online will only continue to grow, it’s that simple,” Hard Rock Casino and Hotel Atlantic City President Joe Lupo said in an emailed statement.

A 10 p.m. indoor dining curfew imposed in the fall only worsened the casino’s financial outlook, with many establishments staying open well into the morning and patrons. Gov. Phil Murphy signed an order days before the Super Bowl expanding capacity limits for indoor dining, casinos and other indoor businesses from 25% to 35%, and lifting the 10 p.m. curfew. Murphy has denied that the decision was made with the Super Bowl in mind.


“With the state’s decision to ease COVID-19 restrictions, we were able to welcome back more guests to expanded amenities and provide them the safe and exciting experience they have come to expect from our first-class properties,” Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, the state’s gambling trade group, said in a statement. Callender is also the regional president for Caesars Entertainment, which owns Caesars, Tropicana and Harrah’s Resort in the seaside resort town.



Gradually warming weather means more outdoor activities, and public health officials say the COVID-19 virus will have a much harder time spreading to new hosts. And increased vaccination rates across the state should also slow the pandemic. Murphy argued that these two factors mean that restrictions could very well continue to be loosened, and that the spring may look very different from the wintery COVID-19 second wave.


Still, online betting will likely be an important component of wagering on the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament, which was cancelled last year. “New Jersey’s online-first dynamic is ideally suited for the sheer volume of games of March Madness,” said Eric Ramsey, an analyst for PlayNJ.com. “The typical recreational bettor can’t necessarily visit the casino every day or spend four straight days sitting in the sportsbook watching tournament games. But it’s comparatively easy to make a few bets on your cell phone during a lunch break or while the kids are napping.”

Casino and sports-betting executives said they were confident that come next year, their establishments can re-create the recent numbers in online gaming, even if the return to full capacity brick-and-mortar gambling draws away from that pool.


“I expect mobile gaming numbers to continue to grow in 2021, but maybe not at the same rates we saw in 2020,” said Max Bichsel, an analyst with Gambling.com Group. “Additionally, I suspect brick and mortar operators will also see increases in 2021 as Covid-19 restrictions get lifted and traffic increases in casinos.”

According to Thomas Winter, who heads online gaming at Golden Nugget, the Atlantic City establishment saw an “almost identical handle” at its brick and mortar sportsbooks between 2020 and 2021. Meanwhile, online bets were up 50% over last year, he added.

“For the Golden Nugget Sportsbooks to benefit from a growing market and customer-base the focus here is customer service and product,” Winter continued in an email. “We are observing very positive trends across live betting and player proposition bet-types so the challenge is to deliver to our customer expectations.”

Online sportsbook FanDuel, which operates the retail business for Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel and Casino, and the Meadowlands Racetrack, said in a statement that the two New Jersey locations ultimately serve as “complementary to our online business.”

“While we have capacity restrictions right now, our sportsbook locations … provide great atmospheres to watch and bet on games like the Super Bowl or March Madness,” FanDuel continued. “We don’t see that changing.”

A spokesperson for Borgata Atlantic City said the in-person turnout was impressive even “considering the current restrictions and reduced capacity.”

“We saw an increase in bets, both in our sportsbook and on mobile, this year compared to last year,” the spokesperson added.

And Lupo said that while he expects Hard Rock will be able to host more in-person events in 2022, including those specific to the Super Bowl, he nonetheless expects higher volumes in both online-only sports-betting and gambling.

“Online will only continue to grow, it’s that simple,” he concluded.