Normally, the start of the first NFL season in which sports wagering is legal in the St. Louis market would be a huge milestone. After all, the No. 1 programming draw in all of television also is the golden standard in Nevada’s long-established sports gambling empire and draws large crowds.
But little is “normal” in 2020, when the coronavirus has created a global pandemic that has had a huge impact on many aspects of everyday life. No exception to that are the legal sportsbooks in the market that somewhat quietly have popped up this year, first at Argosy Casino in Alton and now in East St. Louis at DraftKings at Casino Queen — the Queen recently partnered with the large sports betting company with which it now shares its name.
While sports betting is not legal in Missouri, it now is on the doorstep with these gambling dens just across the Mississippi River. The Queen is booking bets about a mile away, as the crow flies, from Busch Stadium. And Argosy brings athletics wagering to within a short drive of the large North County population base.
Despite government-issued virus-related mandates in Illinois that limit customer capacity and prohibit the sale of food and cocktails inside casinos, a robust sportsbook business is forecast this weekend in Alton and East St. Louis.
“I’m expecting us to be packed,” Steve Peate, Argosy Alton’s general manager, said Thursday. “Already the NBA has (generated) a lot of traffic, and the NFL is the No. 1 sport.”
Officials at the Queen declined to comment, but it could have brisk turnout at more than its betting windows. Unlike in Alton, the DraftKings outlet has established mobile wagering. So bettors do not have to be on site to risk their money, though they do need to be in Illinois to establish an account and bet.
The virus-related limitations undoubtedly will soften the festive and often raucous carnival-like atmosphere that can exist in big sports betting establishments.
Many people go to sportsbooks in Nevada, and other states that recently have legalized them, for an experience that can rival — and sometimes exceed — the electricity in a stadium or arena. Sportsbooks, especially ones with large seating capacities, often become loud, energy-filled dens as games wind down and bettors’ money is on the line. Yelling at what is unfolding on TV screens is common, and emotions can run high even in lopsided games when the point spread or over-under (total number of points scored) outcomes remain in play.
Adding to the ambiance is that many books serve cocktails and food, so they can be a place for many to camp out all day on a football Saturday or Sunday. But there is a significantly curtailed college schedule this year because of the virus, and Illinois casinos’ indoor cocktail and restaurant service have been suspended because of the virus.
Argosy is trying to make the best of the circumstances, as it plans to open an outdoor area to serve food and drinks this weekend. But only bottled water will be available inside, where the “action” is talking place.
“We’re definitely trying to create as good an experience as possible,” Peate said. “It’s hard for us to determine how it will impact us. Time will tell.”
The reductions figures to impact the sportsbook more in Alton than East St. Louis. Argosy’s book, while not huge, is next to a bar that has numerous TV screens. The capacity in the area usually is about 200, but now is at roughly 50.
The book in East St. Louis has several betting windows and kiosks in a small room, with no customer seating or amenities. It has been open for just a short time and to accommodate bettors until a larger facility opens. Most who bet on-site there can be expected to take their tickets elsewhere to watch the games.
Given that Sunday will be the first time that legal wagers on a full slate of NFL games will be taken in the market, it would not be surprising to see a glut of people trying to get in last-minute bets before nine games kick off at noon.
That could cause problems. Not only will the clerks be going through what can be a pressurized situation for the first time, with anxious customers growing impatient with slow-moving lines, many bettors will be novices who don’t know the parlance to use at the windows. They will say they want to bet on the Eagles, for instance, rather than giving the betting number assigned to the team. This will cause the clerk to have to look up the number to enter into the computer, slowing things down.
Customers also could tie up kiosks for a considerable period as they navigate them for the first time — or worse still are deciding what to bet while at the machine.
So the best advice is to get bets in earlier in the weekend, or early on game day, and accommodations have been made. Both books are set to open Sunday an hour earlier than they had been, the Queen at 8 a.m. and Argosy at 9 o’clock.
And Argosy’s Peate said his employees have noted that some customers are liking to banter with the tellers at the windows.
“We are seeing more people go toward face-to-face interaction,” he said, adding that some like to talk about bets they already have made.
It’s nice to hear that there is some chitchat in an age when interpersonal communication is on the decline. But a wagering window at 11:45 on a football Sunday morning is not the time for that.
In what figures to be a learning curve for employees and bettors, the early bird will get the ticket.
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