Casino Gambling

Ready to place sports bets in South Mississippi? Not so fast — you’ll have to wait a little longer

The first day casinos in Mississippi legally can offer sports betting is July 22, but that likely won’t happen.

Mississippi Gaming Commission approved the sports regulations on June 21. A 30-day waiting period follows and the state set the opening one day after that. However, a Sunday opening could be seen as a negative in a Bible Belt state like Mississippi.

The sports betting operation at each casino must be approved by the Gaming Commission staff, and no Coast casino has yet provided an opening date. But operators are indicating it will be soon.

The general managers say they are focused on being ready by the start of football season. Opening day for the Southeast Conference college football is Sept. 1. The NFL regular season kicks off Sept. 6, when the Atlanta Falcons take on the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, and preseason NFL games start Aug. 2.

Football is by far the most popular sport to wager on in the United States, according to Statista.com, which reports that 77 percent of all those who bet on sports bet on football.

“Let’s keep our eyes wide open and focus on doing it right and providing quality product,” said Palace Casino general manager Keith Crosby, “and allow it to mature into what it will become.” Rolling out sports betting carefully and correctly will set Mississippi up for possible expansion in the future, he said.

Who’s ready

The first Coast casinos to submit paperwork to conduct sports betting in Mississippi were the Palace Casino, along with the parent companies of Beau Rivage (MGM Resorts International), Harrah’s Gulf Coast (Caesars Entertainment), all in Biloxi, plus Boomtown Biloxi and Hollywood Casino (Penn National) in Bay St. Louis.

Now, said Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Gaming Commission, “We’re getting a number of applications.”

Representatives of all 12 casinos in South Mississippi told the Sun Herald they intend to offer sports betting and several have begun renovating space on the casino floor for their sports book.

Palace Casino plans to use William Hill sports betting company, the largest in the country, to run its sports book, Crosby said.

Penn National uses a third-party vendor in Nevada, said Jeff Morris, vice president of public affairs at Penn National, and he anticipates doing the same in Mississippi.

William Hill US has applied for a license to operate in Mississippi and that application could be on the Aug. 16 Gaming Commission agenda, Godfrey said.

Ahead of the game

Delaware and New Jersey were the first two states to open sports books after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the ban on sports betting on May 14. Mississippi is poised to be next.

“We always knew there was a big appetite for legal sports betting during the years of litigation, and now it is being proven,” said Joe Asher, chief executive officer for William Hill US, after Delaware and New Jersey reported strong starts to sports betting.

“We are proud to be creating new jobs in New Jersey and bringing excitement to our customers,” said Asher, who attended the Southern Gaming Summit at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in May. “We can’t wait until football season.”

Mississippi is the only state in the southeast and the SEC college football conference that will have sports betting, setting up the expectation that fans of the New Orleans Saints, LSU, Alabama, Auburn and other college teams from surrounding states will venture to Mississippi to bet and watch the games.

While having sports betting in Penn National’s five Mississippi casinos is a nice amenity to offer customers, Morris said, “It’s a really great opportunity for Mississippi as a whole.”

A comeback

Rob Portwood was born and raised in Gulfport and moved to Las Vegas in the 1990s to work in race and sports betting. More than 20 years later, he was just hired to oversee the sports book at Harrah’s Gulf Coast in Biloxi.

“I was kind of hoping this day would come,” he said. The lift of the ban on sports betting means he can return home and do what he enjoys, he said. He’s gotten texts and calls from friends across the South, he said, as the excitement grows for the start of wagering in Mississippi.

With a huge spike in demand for sports betting equipment and skilled staff, “It’s a great time to be in the industry,” he said.

The staff at Harrah’s Gulf Coast will be fully trained in sports betting, Portwood said, and he anticipates a learning curve for the public to become familiar with the language and skill of sports betting.

Like the Coast casinos, the Gaming Commission is sending staff to Las Vegas to get a crash course on sports betting.

“Everyone is trying to learn as much as they can as fast as they can,” Godfrey said.

The thrill

“The advent of sports betting in Mississippi is exciting, and it is providing a new level of interest and energy for the Mississippi gaming industry,” said Tommy Shepherd, a casino attorney for Jones Walker and a frequent blogger on Mississippi’s casino industry.

The average fantasy sports player is 32, a college graduate and makes more than $75,000 a year, according to the American Gaming Association. Coast casinos are preparing facilities that will give sports betters of all ages more than a place to put down a wager.

The area around Contact Sports Bar at Palace Casino is curtained off, Crosby said, as work begins to transform the space into an integrated sports book and bar experience with dozens of sports and odds televisions and a smoke-free bar and restaurant.

Other casinos are completing temporary facilities while making plans for more elaborate sports book lounges, depending on just how big sports betting is when it opens in South Mississippi.

Mary Perez: 228-896-2354, @MaryPerezSH

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