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Indy Gaming: ‘We run our own model:’ Why Derek Stevens bets big on sports betting expansion

The Las Vegas-based sportsbook business is adding operations in Illinois and Kentucky, bringing its landscape to five states in just four years.
Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz
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Don’t suggest to Derek Stevens that smaller sports betting operators can’t compete with industry giants such as DraftKings, FanDuel, Caesars Sportsbook and BetMGM, each of which operate in upward of 20 states and typically combine for as much as 80 percent of a single state’s sports wagering’s monthly revenue.

His Las Vegas-based Circa Sports is launching sports betting operations in Illinois and Kentucky, which will become the company’s fourth and fifth states, respectively, behind Nevada, Colorado and Iowa.

Stevens, who opened Circa Sports in 2019 at his downtown Las Vegas casinos, says he takes a similar approach to the sports betting business in states outside of Nevada.

“What we do differently than others is provide value to the wagering consumer,” Stevens said in an interview Monday. “We don't limit customers and we take big bets. We run our own model.”

In October 2018, Stevens, who was in the early stages of building what would become Circa Casino Resort, walked through the Global Gaming Expo to get an understanding of the various sports wagering systems, technology and products that were available to casino operators.

He wanted to launch his own sports betting business.

Five months earlier, a Supreme Court ruling allowed states to legalize and regulate sports betting. At the time of the 2018 G2E, fewer than 10 states had legalized the activity. When several operators launched mobile sports wagering in Kentucky last week, the commonwealth became the nation’s 35th state to legalize sports betting.

The crowded market doesn’t deter Stevens, who has made Circa synonymous with sports betting. He opened a three-level, 1,000-seat flagship sportsbook at Circa Casino Resort, where a 143-foot LED screen and videoboard shows live sporting events at the resort's 4,000-person capacity "Stadium Swim."

“You have to be really focused on sports because it’s an intensely competitive landscape,” Stevens said.

“Sports betting can’t be like your eighth or ninth priority,” he added. “It has to be a top priority for your business because this is an intensely competitive landscape.

Stevens isn’t alone in trying to capture more of the sports betting market. Sports merchandise giant Fanatics acquired the U.S. operations of Australian sports betting operator PointsBet this summer and launched Fanatics-branded sportsbooks in eight states. Penn Entertainment cut ties with Barstool Sports and partnered with ESPN. The operator of M Resort will launch ESPN Sportsbook in November.

On Wednesday, Circa will open a sportsbook inside a temporary casino in Waukegan, Illinois, operated by Las Vegas-based Full House Resorts. Circa will follow Full House when the company opens its permanent American Place at the site.

The key, however, is the mobile sports betting license — which opened up all of Illinois to Circa through remote registration and remote funding.

Circa Resort & Casino towers above the Stadium Swim venue ahead of the downtown resort's opening in October 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

“I think we will see a lot of Circa Las Vegas customers that live in Illinois this week,” Stevens said of the launch at the casino, roughly 40 miles north of downtown Chicago. Former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will place the sportsbook’s initial wager.

“This is where having our Circa operations in Las Vegas helps us in a state like Illinois,” Stevens said. “We’ve tried to integrate the Illinois location with our Illinois customers. With mobile, we’re able to bring Circa Sports right into their homes.”

In Kentucky, Circa plans to launch mobile sports betting through a casino attached to the Cumberland Harness Racing Track in the coming months.

The owners of the track, Ron Winchell, who operates 20 tavern-style gaming locations in Southern Nevada, and Marc Falcone, former CFO of Red Rock Resorts, bought the Kentucky Downs racetrack near the Kentucky and Tennessee border. The facility also has a historic horse racing venue under “The Mint” name that will be remodeled next year.

Stevens said a Circa sportsbook will be added to the gaming facility.

Circa moved outside of Nevada with mobile sports betting in Colorado and Iowa. The company has also expanded in Nevada by opening satellite locations at The Pass Casino in Henderson and the off-Strip Tuscany on East Flamingo Road.

The casinos allow Circa to acquire new online customers through in-person sign-ups, as Nevada does not allow for mobile sports betting registration.

Last year, Circa opened a sportsbook at Legends Bay Casino Sparks that gave the company a Northern Nevada footprint for mobile wagering sign-ups, while attracting business from Northern California — a state that does not have legal sports betting.

“Obviously, sports is a key component of everything we do,” he said.


A view of the Sphere in Las Vegas is seen on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Analyst: Sphere established a new live entertainment standard

The opening-night performance of U2’s residency at the Sphere in Las Vegas helped Macquarie Securities entertainment analyst Paul Golding gain a better understanding of the economics surrounding the venue.

Golding, who follows Sphere Entertainment and MSG Entertainment, wrote in a research note that recent commentary by company executives justifying budget increases over the past several years may have been warranted.

Sphere’s costs since its 2018 groundbreaking grew by an estimated $700 million to a final price tag of $2.3 billion.

“Ease of production aside, we feel management achieved its goal of setting a new standard in the live [entertainment] category — premium, totally immersive, blurring the lines between digital and physical planes in ways unknown to us to exist otherwise,” Golding wrote in a note published Monday.

U2’s performance, the first of 25 shows of a residency that will run through December, provided the audience with a fully immersive experience that used every part of Sphere’s 160,000-foot LED interior screen.

Construction of the Sphere in Las Vegas cost more than the 65,000-seat, $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium, as well as the proposed 33,000-seat retractable roof Oakland A’s baseball stadium, which has a preliminary price tag of $1.5 billion. Unlike the two sports venues, the Sphere was built without public financing.

Golding said seeing the Sphere firsthand “brought management’s franchising comments … squarely into view.” The company has discussed building Sphere venues in other markets.

He suggested completing the major expenses for the first Sphere, including structural design, technology and development of a content studio, could bring “efficiencies” for future projects.


An overview rendering of MGM Resorts planned $10 billion project in Osaka, Japan. (Courtesy MGM Resorts)

Development the next step after MGM signs agreement for $10B Osaka project

MGM Resorts International and its Japan-based partners signed a development agreement with authorities and government officials in Osaka last week, allowing the company to move forward on a $10 billion integrated resort complex.

Located on 122 acres along the water on Osaka's Yumeshima Island, the MGM-led property will become the country’s first casino development when completed in 2029.

In addition to gaming, the complex will offer a selection of non-gaming attractions, including 2,500 hotel rooms, more than 700,000 square feet of conference and exhibition facilities, retail shopping, a variety of food and beverage offerings and other resort and entertainment activities.

MGM is developing the project in a joint venture with ORIX Corporation, which was established to create an Osaka-based integrated resort.

The company has been looking at Osaka for decades. Osaka leaders approved the plans between MGM Resorts and ORIX in October 2021. The government certified the area development plan in April.

In a statement last week, MGM Resorts CEO Bill Hornbuckle said the resort complex would contribute to sustainable growth and development of tourism and the economy of Osaka and the Kansai region.

The agreement ended the certification process and allowed MGM to move forward with the development phase.

“Our vision is to bring MGM's 'wow' DNA from Las Vegas to Osaka and build a resort that will be a source of great pride in the community,” Hornbuckle said.


Customers stand in Caesars Palace Race and Sports Book to place wagers on Super Bowl LVII on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

 NFL implements tougher penalties for players who bet on their own teams

The NFL modified its sports betting policies by implementing harsher punishments for players who wager on their own teams, but amending penalties assessed on players who wager on non-NFL sports.

Under the new policy, disclosed in a memo from Commissioner Roger Goodell that was obtained by ESPN on Friday, a player who places a bet involving his own team will be suspended for at least two years. Bets placed by players on any NFL game will result in at least a one-year suspension.

Betting on non-NFL sports while at a team facility or on team-related travel will now result in a two-game suspension for a first violation, six games for a second violation and at least one year for a third.

In a joint statement Friday, the NFL and NFL Players Association didn’t disclose the contents of the agreement, but said both parties shared a “longstanding and unwavering commitment to protecting the integrity of the game.”

The league said it “periodically reviews the gambling policy in consultation with the NFLPA and clubs to ensure it is responsive to changing circumstances and fully addresses this commitment.”

Since the nationwide legalization of sports betting in 2018, the NFL has teams in 16 states with the activity. The league has suspended 12 players, at least one assistant coach and an undisclosed number of league personnel for violating the NFL's gambling policy. 

The Las Vegas Raiders have not had a player, coach or executive staff member suspended for sports betting violations.

Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), who sent letters to the major sports leagues in June seeking transparency on sports betting policy, said in a statement Friday she appreciated the clarification.

“Penalties for game fixing and betting on one’s own league should be more serious than betting on other sports,” Titus said. “Every sports league should remain focused on protecting the product on the field.”


Attendees gather at the AGS booth during G2E on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Quotable

Via press release from AGS

State gaming regulators approved Las Vegas-based gaming equipment provider AGS to place its slot machines and table games in casinos in Colorado and Missouri. Company leaders said the approvals allow AGS to continue expanding its presence to casinos in 35 states and nine Canadian provinces.

“Getting licensed in these two important jurisdictions is a meaningful piece of AGS’ overall growth strategy, in combination with the investments we have made in hiring top talent within [research and development] and expanding our game studios worldwide.

-          Mark DeDeaux, senior vice president, AGS

Via press release from BetMGM

BetMGM — and every other sports betting operator that accepts wagers on the WNBA — got the championship matchup they were hoping for between the league’s top two teams — the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty — starting on Sunday. BetMGM said it saw a 27 percent increase in WNBA wagering this year as the Aces and Liberty lead the leagues.

“The New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces is our dream matchup for the finals and could generate some serious action. The expansion of legalized sports betting and the WNBA’s most-watched regular season in over two decades are definitely key factors driving the increase.”

-          Seamus Magee, sports trader, BetMGM

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