Bryan Anselm / The New York Times
Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018 | 2 a.m.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — At first, the sportsbook in northern New Jersey appeared to have everything ready when sports betting became legal in the state: 52 high-definition TVs, a fully stocked bar, a revamped menu, a plush VIP section and 20 tellers spread out in a cavernous room.
It turned out there was one thing the facility at the Meadowlands Racetrack operated by FanDuel hadn’t fully accounted for — the sheer volume of people eager to gamble.
On several Saturdays in September, there were hourslong lines outside the sportsbook. Some people couldn’t even place bets before game time. So the sportsbook expanded, moving upstairs and taking up the second floor.
Turns out New Jersey really enjoys sports betting.
“This is definitely the most incredible thing that’s ever happened, anywhere, for anything,” said Mark Taran, 30, who drove to the FanDuel Sportsbook from his home on Staten Island on a recent weeknight for the opening night of the National Basketball Association season.
Since the state started allowing sports betting in June, with Gov. Philip Murphy, a Democrat, placing the ceremonial first bet on Germany to win the World Cup (he lost $20), the sports betting industry in the state has enjoyed remarkable growth. New Jersey bettors wagered $184 million on sports in September, nearly double the $96 million bet in August. So far, $336.6 million has been wagered on sports, according to the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.
“This was always going to be a gold mine for New Jersey,” said Raymond Lesniak, a former Democratic state legislator who led a campaign against a national ban on sports wagering that was ultimately set aside by the Supreme Court. “I knew this from the start. The Northeast and New Jersey are a hotbed for sports.”
New Jersey’s rapid embrace of sports wagering has surprised some industry experts who are recalibrating how quickly the state could become a national leader — and even challenge Nevada, where such gambling has long been permitted.
“New Jersey will eclipse Vegas,” said Chris Grove, managing director of Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, a sports wagering research firm. “It’s a matter of when, not if.”
That rather bullish outlook for New Jersey may not be universally shared. Nevada has not released its sports wagering tally for September, but during the previous three years its average for September, $460 million, has been much higher than New Jersey’s. And sports betting in New Jersey still generates far less revenue than Atlantic City’s nine casinos.
Still, sports wagering is quickly on its way to outpace the state’s far more established, though ailing, horse racing industry. In 2017, the racing industry took in about $570 million in bets, according to the Division of Gaming. Sports betting is already at almost 60 percent of that total in less than four months.
Much of the recent growth can be attributed to two factors: the introduction of mobile and online sports betting apps by major companies in the industry, like FanDuel and DraftKings, and the start of the college and professional football seasons.
Football accounted for nearly $90 million of the sports wagers in September in New Jersey, according to the gaming division.
“Personally, when I saw the number, yeah, I was very surprised,” David Rebeck, director of the gaming division, said, referring to the September figures. He also said he was impressed by the growth of both mobile and in-person betting.
Despite its booming popularity, mobile betting in New Jersey is still in its infancy. The first app, by DraftKings, was introduced in early August. FanDuel, which has second largest share of mobile betting, started in early September, just in time for the football season. Other companies, like SugarHouse, began theirs in the fall.
Rebeck said he expects the sports betting totals on apps to continue to grow as more companies continue to go that direction, and existing ones expand their advertising. As for brick-and-mortar operations, six of Atlantic City’s casinos have sportsbooks, bringing the number of sportsbooks in the state to eight.
To ensure that online gambling revenues flow back to New Jersey, state regulations require mobile operators to enter into deals with a state-based sportsbook.
“New Jersey’s regulated sports betting is a plane that’s being assembled in midflight,” said Grove, alluding to how quickly the state set in place its sports betting regulations even as casinos, racetracks and other operators were still getting their sports betting operations going. “In September, they had a lot more pieces of the plane.”
New Jersey also benefits from sitting between two of the largest media markets in the country — New York City and Philadelphia — and sports betting is not legal in either New York state or Pennsylvania.
“I’ve got like 12 million people that live within 20 miles of the place,” said Jeff Gural, who operates the Meadowlands Racetrack and notes that his venue is a relatively short drive or train ride from Manhattan. “I don’t even need that many of them to come.”
He anticipated significant increases in sports gamblers during major events, like the Super Bowl in February and the NCAA basketball tournament in March, and had made plans for the sportsbook to expand. But the unexpected burst of popularity on Saturdays forced him to accelerate his plans.
“When we saw how busy we were, we went to the gaming commission” and sought permission to expand,'’ Gural said.
How long the Meadowlands can retain its geographic advantage is unclear since officials in New York, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have expressed support for legalizing sports gambling in the state.
“After the midterm elections in November, I think we’re going to see a substantial number of states aggressively start looking at whether they want sports wagering in their states,” Rebeck said, adding that he has been contacted by officials elsewhere. “There’s at least half a dozen states that have an interest, and want to know how we do it.”