Las Vegas Sun

June 16, 2019

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New neighborhood sports book wagering, via smartphone

Even a novice out grocery shopping can learn to wager on a mobile phone

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It’s always betting season in Las Vegas, with its tangy scent of money lost, won, and lost again.

I wasn’t planning to place my first sports bet on my new cellphone until at least lunchtime. But thinking about those wide-eyed $319 Mega Millions lottery winners has changed my mind, and I prepare to make my leap while still in my pajamas.

I use a password to log into my Leroy’s race and sports book account, where I deposited $100 using my credit card the day before. The tiny balance numbers appear under my name on the BlackBerry Leroy’s has loaned me for this gambling journey into the 21st century. I select “college basketball” from a sports menu and scroll through available games until finding Virginia Commonwealth University, which is 3 to 1 to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship. There are better odds, such as 5 to 1, at other sports books, meaning the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

Instead, I pick University of Connecticut to win the tournament. I select the “money line” and enter my bet of $10 using my keypad. A new screen pops up to confirm the bet and validate my location because this game is confined to Nevada.

I may have just woke up, but I know I’m in a bustling Henderson suburb just down the street from a cellphone tower. Sitting in my kitchen with a bowl of cereal, I feel part of some ridiculous experiment.

I am not, you might say, a sports bettor — a person in Nevada who thinks of sports rather than creamy toppings when hearing the word “spread.” Even among its devotees, sports betting in Nevada is mostly an old-fashioned, labor intensive process involving driving to a sports book, parking, navigating through a casino and back again. That is, for those who still bet legally at Nevada sports books instead of offshore websites that are but a mouse click away.

Over the past decade, Nevada has allowed residents to bet remotely on sports using casino-issued pagers that pinpoint the gambler’s location using radio signals. With a few exceptions, so-called account wagering fell by the wayside as pagers became obsolete. Many sports books no longer offer the service, which enables gamblers to view odds and place bets using a tiny pager screen or by making a password-protected call to a sports book and responding to automated prompts.

Enabling sports wagers on smart phones — technology we’ll almost all be using in a few years, if the pundits are correct — was the obvious next step for American Wagering, a 33-year-old Las Vegas company that supplies the sports betting technology most Nevada casinos use to run their books. The company, which runs smaller books for casinos through its Leroy’s brand, began working on the state’s first smart phone application for sports betting nearly two years ago.

Because remote sports bets are allowed by law for Nevada residents, the company would only need to convince regulators that minors and non-Nevada residents wouldn’t be able to sign up and start betting with their phones through Leroy’s.

That turned out to be a challenge, as GPS satellite technology was a crude measure of the state’s borders.

American Wagering developed a more finely tuned system that triangulates signals from cellphone towers to pinpoint the cellphone user’s location within a few feet of the state line.

After launching its first application for BlackBerry phones in September, the company has introduced the application for Android and will soon be compatible with iPhones.

“We know more about phones than we ever thought we would,” said John English, senior vice president of public affairs and business development for American Wagering. “We’re bookmakers.”

Most technology companies would have you believe we will all be using smart phones, with Internet access and other high-powered bells and whistles, in the near future. That may be true, although most Americans are still using “dumb” phones like mine, a late-model LG that is cheap and energy-efficient.

And although American Wagering hopes to corner the mobile gambling market on sports, it remains a small enterprise for Nevada, the only state where sports betting on nonracing events is legal. Sports betting revenue accounted for about 1 percent of all the money gamblers lost to Nevada casinos last year.

Despite growing interest in the Leroy’s betting application, mobile sports betting has a small following so far, as evidenced by the relatively short list of available bets by phone.

American Wagering won’t release customer numbers or betting statistics, although English says those numbers are significantly higher than expected after a few months of operation.

As the proud, longtime owner of a “dumb” phone, I am learning about betting as well as smart-phone technology.

At the neighborhood grocery store, I scroll through NCAA bets and decide to wager $25 that Kentucky will score first in Monday’s championship game. Reading a BlackBerry while navigating a grocery cart is harder than it looks. Just like using a regular phone, people are annoyed when you don’t pay attention to where you are going.

Gambling while standing in a produce aisle, away from the testosterone-inducing environment of the gambling floor, is a disorienting experience.

On the other hand, I am drawn to the ease of making bets, which becomes more natural with each passing minute. Just like our gambling floors, there aren’t any problem-gambling messages that pop up on the screen when I make a bet, like, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

That’s no different from the rest of the Nevada gambling experience, where libertarian-minded legislators and regulators have avoided imposing warnings on games to avoid stigmatizing our primary industry. (The application’s terms and conditions, available from the home page, features a fine print problem-gambling disclosure including a hotline number and a link to Leroy’s website for more information on compulsive gambling.)

In my case, the urge to gamble is tempered by the Outside World.

Other things I could have easily bought for my $25 are in close, easily comparable range. And the surrounding multitudes aren’t gambling, as far as I can tell (although with the spread of cellphone gambling, that may change). I could have bought a couple of bottles of wine for that $25.

Also, phone betting with Leroy’s is a multistep process that’s methodical compared with some forms of gambling, with ATMs and cash advances in proximity.

Unlike a slot machine, I can see my balance when I log in. That number is getting ever smaller as the day wears on. To make the bet, I type in the amount I want to wager and authorize it. Another screen pops up that asks me to confirm the bet and initiates the satellite system that will confirm my location. It’s a pause in the action that allows me to reconsider.

On average, players open accounts with balances of around $220 — small potatoes compared with the dollars gamblers often burn through in the heat of the moment. After setting up the account, I can add more money by going to a Leroy’s sports book with cash in hand or by calling the company with a credit or debit card. With that in mind, I make a 45-to-1 bet that Geoff Ogilvy will win the Master’s golf tournament. It’s a mere $5 to win $230 on a guy I know little about, other than he’s a championship golfer who cut his finger on a piece of beach coral. Not a sound investment, perhaps.

By now, this strange process has become normal, and I waste little time at the doctor’s office waiting room — my next stop — betting $20 that the Dodgers will beat the Giants.

To test the company’s location verification process, I drive to the California border and place my final bet.

I avoid betting during the 45-minute drive to Primm, fearing the consequences of gambling while driving and worrying about a future where such warnings may be needed. I park in front of the Terrible’s store at Primm and decide to risk my remaining balance on the Lakers to beat the Mavericks. I’m able to place the bet but the confirmation process, as expected, doesn’t complete.

There are no snarky messages like “What do you think you’re doing?” Instead, the application reverts to the first wagering screen, inviting me to place the bet again. I walk a few steps toward the driveway to the lottery store.

No dice. I cross the street and face the Primm outlet mall. Bingo — my $50 bet is accepted.

I take a few steps back toward the lottery store and across the unseen California line in the asphalt, where sports betting is suddenly bad and the lottery is good.

I’m now doubting the wisdom of making $17 on the Lakers when faced with betting $5 to win $19 million on California’s Mega Millions lottery. After spending $100 on sports, what seemed like a throwaway lottery bet yesterday now seems like as sound a move as any. (With my winnings on the Lakers and Dodgers bets that evening, I can buy those bottles of wine I was thinking about earlier.)

I get my lottery ticket and drive back to Las Vegas feeling like I have covered my bases.

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