Just watch any game, especially the National Football League Playoffs, and it does not take long to realize how big the legal sports betting business and culture has become in just a few short years since the landmark 2018 Supreme Court ruling that opened the door for legal sports wagering across the country.
Of course, New Jersey was at the forefront of that effort, both in leading the litigation and becoming the first state to jump on the new reality authorizing sports betting. Since that time, the Garden State has become a leader in the space, consistently putting up big numbers, especially during football season with monthly handles regularly cracking the $1 billion threshold. The state now faces more competition, as New York, Pennsylvania and other neighbors establish their own foothold in the burgeoning industry.
Earlier this month, Johnny Avello, DraftKings director of race & sportsbook operations and a legend in the industry who is based in Las Vegas, spoke to NJBIZ about some of the 2022 highlights and trends, as well as a look ahead to 2023.
The discussion, on the heels of the World Cup, started with the tournament that took place in Qatar at the end of 2022 instead of during its customary summer slot. The change in season did nothing to dent the excitement that the tournament produced, culminating with an epic championship match between Argentina and France.
“That was amazing. Really was,” said Avello. “Expectations were moderate for that, and it just exceeded expectations.”
He said the unusual timing of the tournament was the reason that expectations were a bit muted. “Usually during the summer, it’s an isolated period. It’s the only thing going on except baseball,” Avello explained. “So, it attracts quite a bit of business. We weren’t sure what it would do going up against football in November. But it did very well.”
Avello added that the success sets the stage for the next World Cup in 2026, which will be held in North America, with New Jersey/New York serving as a host city and MetLife Stadium slated to host matches.
As he recapped some of the 2022 highlights, at the top of that list was the magical run by the Saint Peter’s University Peacocks in the NCAA basketball tournament. In fact, the Peacocks were the most lucrative team for bettors, making them the most money in all states on the DraftKings Sportsbook last year.
Of course, because of the rules preventing wagering on college games here in the Garden State, New Jersey bettors were largely shut out from that windfall, unless they traveled across state lines, or made other arrangements.
“I’m always excited to see a team make a run at the NCAA tournament,” said Avello. “And usually when it’s a team as big of an underdog as a Saint Peter’s is, you’re going to get dinged when they win. And in that first game against Kentucky, they were an 18-point underdog, +1,600, which is 16 to 1 on the money line. We took a pretty good hit on that.”
That means on a $100 wager, bettors took home $1,600.
And that Cinderella run just built from there, when the Peacocks were a nine-point underdog against Murray State, followed by a 13-point underdog against Purdue, including 6 to 1 on the money line.
“So here we are with three straight Saint Peter’s games where the house is taking a hit,” said Avello. “Meanwhile, we’re building up this liability for them to win it all. And it kept growing. It was in the millions. I didn’t think they could win it all. But they certainly gave it all they had for every game they played. And the players did really well across the country.”
The baseball season also yielded some area excitement with the Yankees, Mets and Phillies all performing well and making it to the postseason.
That set the stage for the football season, which has taken on a much different tenor here in New Jersey since Avello spoke with NJBIZ earlier this month. While Eagles fans have gotten to ride high all year on their way to winning the National Football Conference – Eastern Division and clinching the No. 1 seed, Giants and Jets fans came into the year with lower expectations. And while the Jets ended up fading out after some early season glimmers of hope, the Giants have come on strong over the last few weeks, clinching a playoff berth and beating the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card Round, and moving on to face the Eagles in Philly this past weekend in the Divisional Round.
Avello, who admitted he is a Giants fan, said that coming into this year New Jersey bettors were not really riding the Giants with win total bets or future wagers on the team’s success, after the last few seasons of futility. But following the playoff berth and the thrilling first round win against Minnesota, Giants fans are buzzing once again. Adding in a playoff matchup with the rival Eagles was expected to yield some huge wagering numbers.
“I love the Giants being in the playoffs because between New Jersey and New York, the East Coast, there’s going to be a lot of action on the Giants,” Avello told NJBIZ before the first-round win and before the matchup with Philadelphia.
“The Giants, they aren’t America’s team. But what happens is with New Yorkers like myself, spread out, being on the West Coast or in Nevada and others in California, there’s Giants fans throughout the country. So, there’s a huge contingent of fans everywhere,” said Avello.
Avello also shared that New Jersey bettors had the fifth-highest winning percentage of any state in the country last year.
He said that the pandemic was hard for the industry, but sportsbooks have weathered the storm and continue to see the growth around the country as more states come on line, technology continues to improve, and betting gets more ingrained into mainstream sports coverage and pop culture.
“I expected that it was going to be this big,” said Avello. “But I must admit to you, prior to the [betting restrictions] being overturned, go back five years. I never thought it was going to happen anywhere but Nevada.”
Avello said he thought there were too many hurdles to clear to get to this point. “But once it was overturned, then I knew that it would be huge throughout the country,” he said. “Because all these states were going to come on board and, eventually, we’d get to probably 85% of all states.”
He added that it is important to offer both the ease and flexibility of digital wagering as well as live betting at a brick-and-mortar location. “They’re both great fun,” said Avello. “People like that camaraderie to be around others, watch games, yell, scream, drink, have fun, talk to the ticket writers. Most like to bet digitally because it is easy, and it is convenient. You can bet anywhere as long as you’re within the boundaries of the states that we’re in.”
In-game wagering has grown in popularity as well, Avello said, which typically needs to be done on a phone since it happens so fast.
As for 2023 and beyond, Avello said New Jersey will have to continue contending with regional competition, especially from New York. “Let’s face it. We all knew that there were a lot of New Yorkers crossing over the border to make wagers, and now they can stay at home,” he explained. “But Jersey’s done a great job since New York came on board. They still have a good handle. There’s still new users coming on board from New Jersey. So, it’s one of our premier states.”
The December gaming numbers for New Jersey showed a handle of $1.056 billion, which while strong, was still a drop of 4.1% from November and down 14.2% from December 2021. The total sports betting handle in New Jersey for 2022 was $10.945 billion, up 0.08% from 2021 while total sports betting revenue was $762.954 million, down 6.5% from 2021.
“The year-over-year gains in wagers slowed down in 2022, with only a 0.08% increase from 2021’s overall handle,” said TopNJCasinos.com in an analysis of the December numbers. “While $10 billion in a year is nothing to shake a stick at, New Jersey is used to handle increases of over 80% (2020-2021’s year-over-year value). Sports betting has been active since 2018, which means this may indicate that the state’s market is reaching a plateau, especially as sports wagering picks up momentum in nearby states.”