The saying goes that idle hands are the devil’s playthings.
And with many New Jerseyans, and tens of millions of Americans scaling down or simply cancelling their Thanksgiving plans amid a surging second wave of COVID-19 cases, many are expected to stay home in search of something to occupy the time.
With all-star National Football League matches scheduled all day on Thanksgiving – a generations-long tradition – the state’s casinos and online sportsbooks expect a surge in activity and customers.
“[T]here won’t be much to do in terms of personal entertainment,” Jane Bokunewicz, coordinator of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University, said in an email. “Wagering with an online sportsbook might take the place of other activities including in-person wagering among gathered family and friends.”
The Houston Texans will take on the Detroit Lions at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, followed by the Washington Football Team against the Dallas Cowboys at 4:30 p.m. EST and the Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Baltimore Ravens at 8:20 p.m. EST.
College football matches are scheduled for this weekend, while NCAA men’s basketball has two matches tomorrow, and dozens more over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Dustin Gouker, lead analyst at PlayNJ.com, said in an interview that pent up demand for college basketball following the NCAA’s cancellation of March Madness amid the first wave of COVID-19 outbreaks this spring, means that many patrons will likely be making up for lost time this weekend.
“The volume of college basketball is such that it makes a pretty big difference,” Gouker said.
And the NFL meanwhile has been “plucking along” during the pandemic, and able to stay afloat and keep the virus from shutting down the 2020 season, Gouker noted.
Going into the pandemic, online and mobile app sports-wagering made up the lion’s share of the total wagers placed.
That was especially true during the pandemic when the state’s nine casinos had to close their brick and mortar locations between March and July.
Online gambling became a lifeboat for the casinos during those months, and with them operating at 25% capacity, online wagers still accounted for the vast majority of casino revenue.
“Every time we do an event, it’s a record-breaker because we surpass everything we did last year, or last week or yesterday,” Johnny Avello, head of sportsbooks at DraftKings, said in a phone interview. “Brick and mortar is a very small piece of our operation.”
DraftKings handles just the sportsbook for Resorts Hotel and Casino Atlantic City, while FanDuel operates the sports-betting lounge at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, with plans to open a brick and mortar lounge at Bally’s Atlantic City.
DraftKings said it is also operating free pools over the Thanksgiving weekend, meaning patrons bet for free on the outcomes of different games, in return for cash prizes. And they are offering a litany of Thanksgiving promotions, as is FanDuel.
Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Atlantic City said it expects a “nice boost in business,” thanks to the “surge of online betting this year, combined with the start of college basketball and a weekend full of traditional NFL and College football games.”
“We anticipate a robust market, as many Americans will be at home celebrating the holiday,” Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey – the state’s casino trade group – said in a statement.
But, he maintained, the casinos have “taken extraordinary measures to safely welcome back thousands of hardworking employees and valued guests” and “minimize the exposure to COVID-19.”
Beginning in the late summer, the New Jersey sportsbooks have been consistently beating their monthly records.
“Since June when most major sports resumed play, New Jersey’s sportsbooks have seen record handle and consistent revenue growth year-over-year,” Berkowitz added.
Patrons wagered $803 million at the state’s sportbooks in October, according to data from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, which regulates the state’s casinos and its sports-wagering market. They bet nearly $749 million in September and $668 million in August.
For total wagers to amount to over $1 billion in a single month is just a matter of time – if not in 2020 then at the start of 2021 – both Avello and Gouker agreed. For reference, patrons wagered $1.2 billion in 2018, which was the first year that New Jersey had a sports-betting market, followed by $4.5 billion in 2019.
“Historically, November and December are a little less,” Gouker said. But with “pent up demand for college basketball,” and the Thanksgiving football games, the numbers will “probably be bigger than usual.”
“Those aren’t going to be the rings that put New Jersey over $1 billion.