“I had my own problems and most of them had to do with gambling.” — Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Generation of Swine)
Despite all the myths, you can’t lose your sanity by spending all day in a sportsbook. But you can come awfully close.
Roughly 20 minutes south of Chicago in Hammond, Indiana are two casinos right next to Lake Michigan. Separated by two miles, each property has embraced Indiana sports betting in its own unique way. However, the casinos are not only separated by distance, but they are also separated by $5 million in retail sports betting handle.
These days, anyone of legal age can place a wager on a phone or computer. But I decided to strip the mobile equation out of the picture. I wanted to experience what it would be like to spend an entire day inside a sportsbook. I wanted to sit next to the casual bettor and experience absolute loathing or the excitement of triumph.
The idea of hunkering down by the bar, monitoring my surroundings and trying to figure out why people do this, came to me in September when sports betting became legal in Indiana.
In those three short months, Horseshoe Casino, a Caesars property, has been the leader in retail sports betting. In November, the property recorded $13 million in handle, according to figures from the state gaming commission.
Its neighbor, Ameristar Casino, a Penn National property, cleans up on the mobile wagering side due to its partnership with DraftKings. But when it comes to retail wagering, it only recorded $8 million in handle for November.
November Indiana sports betting numbers for Horseshoe & Ameristar:
- Ameristar Casino/DraftKings/Penn National
$64.1 million = mobile handle (DraftKings): 1st
$7,987,097 = retail handle: 3rd
$4.3 million in taxable adjusted gross revenue
- Horseshoe Hammond/Caesars
$0 = mobile handle (no mobile app)
$12,964,573 = retail handle: 1st
$671,826 in taxable adjusted gross revenue
Each property offers the same product — but why the difference in money? I suppose some of it comes down to preference, loyalty, atmosphere. But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something. My curiosity led me to check things out for myself.
A menu of games inside Horseshoe Casino and one misguided Buckeye fan
On a foggy Saturday morning during college football rivalry week, I traveled to Horseshoe, which is the closest to the Illinois border. What better day to experience all sports betting had to offer? That morning, the appetizer games were Ohio State vs. Michigan and Clemson vs. South Carolina, the entree was Alabama vs. Auburn. The nightcap was one of my favorite games to watch, Florida State vs. Florida.
The Book at Horseshoe Hammond is a 5,300 square-foot space located on the casino’s main floor. The focal point is a grid of TV screens: 12 total, six-screens long, and two high. In the center of the sportsbook were rows and rows of recliners, all facing the TV screens and complete with wooden tables and drink holders.
I arrived around 8:30 AM and hunkered down at a table next to the bar about five feet from the closest slot machine. From my vantage point, I could survey everything. Already there were dozens of people filling the space and another hundred or so waiting in line to place bets at the service desk.
Sitting behind me was a group of 20-somethings already loading up on pitchers of beer and wearing Ohio State scarlet and grey. Midway through that game, I overheard one of the fans talking about the electric JK Dobbins, OSU’s high-profile running back.
The fan said Dobbins was probably the best back in OSU history. I immediately questioned two things. One, his knowledge of OSU history and two, how many Buckeye running backs he’d seen in person.
“I mean there is Archie, Hershel, and Zeke, but Dobbins is right there with them,” the misguided fan said.
In a swift reflex motion, I instantly turned around and corrected his mistake.
Hershel played for Georgia, I said. And Chris “Beanie” Wells, Eddie George, and Carlos Hyde all performed equal to or better than Dobbins.
If there is one thing worse than Ohio State, it’s Ohio State fans.
Why this Indiana sportsbook and not that one?
By noon, the betting line all but disappeared. Sitting to my right was a group of three men casually talking parlay bets and discussing betting strategies for the rest of the day.
One of them, Zachary Bujaki, 32, from Highland, Indiana, said he prefers the seating of Horseshoe but is not a fan of waiting in line for extended amounts of time.
“I enjoy the atmosphere of the sportsbook and watching the game here in person,” he said. “But I spent an hour waiting in line to place my bet.”
Bujaki, a stalky young man and casual better, was enjoying a few drinks with his father and a friend. He was patiently waiting to see if his three-team parlay bet was a winner — it wasn’t.
Bujaki said he enjoys watching a game at Horseshoe but prefers the kiosks provided by Ameristar.
“I like the betting kiosks. A good [sports]book would be a combination of both [Horseshoe and Ameristar].”
A few other casual bettors I spoke with confirmed the same thing. Shane, 23, from Sugar Grove, Illinois, who preferred not to have his last name mentioned, said Horseshoe is easy to get to.
“It’s right off the skyway so I can stay for a couple of games, then hop right on the highway and head out,” he said.
I asked Shane and Bujaki their opinions about the DraftKings mobile app and if there was anything I should know about Ameristar when I visit.
“I use the William Hill app, and I prefer it,” Shane said. “If this place had an app, I would use it.”
Bujaki was a bit more hesitant about mobile wagering.
“DraftKings asks too many questions, so I decided not to do it,” he said. “And try the steak burrito at Ameristar — it’s the best.”
By the end of the Florida State game, I was exhausted. Maybe it was the sound of a thousand slot machines going off behind me or perhaps the piss poor performance of FSU. Regardless, I left with my sanity intact, and a new outlook on spending the day in a sportsbook, something I would most likely never do again.
A restless morning inside Ameristar Casino
After the Christmas break, I decided to set up arrangments to watch the NFL Wild Card games from the comfort of the Ameristar property. I took a 7:20 AM Amtrak train from Chicago’s Union Station, a short 29-minute trip that cost me $9. I was dropped off at the Hammond train stop, and from there, I took a quick Uber to the casino front door.
The sportsbook is easy to find, up the escalader and to the right. But when I arrived, the space felt different. Not in a bad way, just different. Instead of being mixed with the chaos of the casino floor like its Caesars neighbor, the sportsbook was secluded from everything else. Except for a few table games and a small eatery, the seclusion made the sports betting experience more intimate.
The Sportsbook at Ameristar is small. It’s a tiny nook carved into the corner on the second floor with a service counter and four betting kiosks. Over at the Stadium Sports Bar, which is adjacent to the sportsbook, there are another three betting kiosks. The bar has several high tables, an abundance of TV screens, but at 9 AM on wild card weekend, only eight people were visible. Roughly two hours later, I counted at least 60 people waiting to place bets. A majority of them were waiting at the betting kiosks with a small handful of people waiting at the service counter.
Much of the criticism about Horseshoe and Ameristar from the people I spoke with seemed accurate. It appeared that the lines were moving at a substantially quicker pace at Ameristar, but unlike Horsehoe, the seating arrangments provided no extra benefit. Unfortunately, due to communication errors, I was banned from speaking with anyone at Horseshoe until I met with the head of marketing. So I waited patiently for six hours.
Pre-game talk with an Ameristar executive
Around 2 PM, shortly before the Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Texans game, I sat down with Jamie Williams, vice president of marketing for Ameristar, to try and discover what made this sportsbook special.
Williams said the feedback from customers so far had been great. “[Sports betting] has brought a whole new crowd to us, which is a little bit different from our typical casino customers. Our process at the sportsbook is quick and easy — with the kiosks — its a great location. Guests can come in, place their bets quick and easy, have a drink and watch the game,” she said.
“I think kiosks provide convenience,” Williams said. “People know what they want to bet, and we have several of them across the property. In today’s world, everything is technology-based, and our customers also have the ability to go on our website, select their bets, come to the property and scan a QR-code and make them very quickly.”
In terms of people occupancy, Williams said he sees no favoritism when it comes to college football Saturdays or NFL Sundays.
“Weekends are a good balance. Our weekends have been jam-packed, you probably wouldn’t be able to see a lot of difference between Saturday and Sunday, it’s just busy all the time,” she said.
A bus trip to the south side
After my sitdown with Williams, I wondered around the casino a bit, grabbed a quick lunch, and watched the first half of the Bills-Texans game. I had had enough of sports betting for the day, so I decided to leave. Much like all casinos, Ameristar provides a shuttle back to Chicago. The bus so happened to drop off right next to Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, and a short walk to my apartment.
During the trip home on a bus filled with gamblers, I reflected on the 21 total hours I spent inside the sportsbooks and why one property was better than the other. Much like Dr. Thompson said, I had several problems floating around my head and most had to do with gambling. Thirty minutes later, the bus pulled to the curb, and I exited into the bitter cold of Chicago’s southside. I was still formulating my answer by the time I arrived home and thought, best not to burn any bridges. My teams may not have performed their best during these particular games, but I secretly couldn’t ignore my nagging anticipation to go back to either sportsbook, place my bet and watch the action unfold.