LINCOLN, R.I. — The light from the nearly 90 television screens at the Twin River Sportsbook on a football Sunday washes over patrons with the force of an open fire hydrant hitting a pile of leaves.
The glare and the din — audio from the Patriots game is piped in at rock-concert levels — from 10 different 1 p.m. NFL games creates a sensory overload.
But for those who choose to crowd into one of the only two legal sportsbooks in New England during football season, an afternoon spent in the proton-packed glow of the sportsbook is a sight-and-sound lollapalooza.
Each pass, fumble, muff, tackle, penalty, and touchdown by the packs of grunting behemoths pushing the ball up and down the gridiron creates a competing chorus of groans and cheers, bottle slams and back slaps, bro hugs and hanging heads.
Adding financial incentive to plain old Patriots and NFL fandom in a legal setting creates a heady viewing experience. One wizened bettor took note of a newbie’s head spinning as he tried to locate the right game to follow, and flashed a knowing nod and ear-to-ear grin.
“It’s a degenerate’s dream right here!” he said.
A new game in town
Sports gambling became legal last Nov. 28, and when Twin River Casino in Lincoln and, later, its sister casino in Tiverton began taking sports bets, the tradition of an NFL football Sunday almost immediately took on a brand-new meaning in these parts.
Rhode Island still does not have either a full year or a full NFL season worth of betting data to crunch, and while total sports betting revenues have trailed state projections, the monthly numbers are trending upward. The Rhode Island handle (total dollars bet) in September exceeded $22 million, the state’s second-highest monthly total, trailing only last spring’s March Madness.
Rhode Island collects 51 percent of revenues (what the casino wins) and in September the state reaped a monthly high of $1.28 million, for a total of more than $5.6 million in its first 11 months.
This September, the last month for which official state figures are available, 49 percent of every Rhode Island bettor’s dollars were placed on NFL games, compared with 27 percent for college football and 16 percent for MLB games.
Before Rhode Island’s cumbersome mobile betting setup began Sept. 4, watching games at the Twin River or Tiverton sportsbook was the only place to indulge an itch to bet legally on the NFL.
“During the NFL season, our sportsbook has become the world’s biggest tailgate party,” said Twin River vice president and general manager Craig Sculos. “Every game you want to watch is available to you and as much as people say, ‘Hey, I’ll stay in my home theater and the proverbial man cave,’ it doesn’t match that experience because you can’t fit in a couple of hundred people to watch a game with you — unless you live in a very large home.”
Demographics no surprise
In the hours leading up to one October Sunday’s full slate of 1 p.m. football games, an unscientific survey of one section of the Twin River parking lot revealed that roughly half of the license plates came from Massachusetts. While there was no way of telling how many of the drivers were pulling in to play the slot machines vs. to place sports bets, the survey matched what the casino knows about its sportsbook visitors.
“It’s a combination of folks coming from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut as you would expect, but it’s also drawing throughout New England — it’s not unusual to see people coming from Maine and New Hampshire particularly for the bigger events,” Sculos said.
One car from Connecticut pulled up to park next to one new bettor (who, as you may have guessed, is also a sports business reporter at the Globe) standing by his car. Two men rolled out and one immediately asked, “You here to make some money?”
The man looked around as if somebody were listening.
“I got a tip on the Chargers — they’re giving half a point, at home.”
“And the line’s going up on the Pats — I’m staying away.”
With that information shared, the duo headed into the sportsbook, where one has a few options in choosing where to place a bet. One area is a long hallway lit by fluorescent lights to give it that Scranton office park feel. Stacked onto slots placed along the wall are “Sportsbook Rhode Island” leaflets featuring the money lines, point totals, and point spreads for each of the games.
Bettor beware: The betting information was fresh from Friday morning.
As the line — 94 percent male — grew, it became quite clear from the odor clinging to the Brady and Edelman jerseys, blue jeans, and Reeboks that many patrons had taken their pre-gaming to new, non-edible heights just prior to walking into the sportsbook. This hunch was confirmed by a traffic standstill in front of one row of betting kiosks, where a trio of dazed dudes stood staring at a screen that had just gone blank after accepting their wad of bills. With the queue not moving and kickoff approaching, the line of bettors with unplaced wagers grew decidedly unmellow.
“I’ve got 40 minutes till gametime — I want to get home before kickoff.”
“I’m really trying hard not to . . . this is ridiculous.”
And, “C’mon let’s go, you’ve been up there for 15 minutes.”
One of the red-eyed dudes snapped to, and turned around to address his peers: “It’s not printing, man — if anyone here’s smarter than this computer, come on over.”
Nobody moved. Eventually, the line did.
Mobile option needs work
Standing in line could have been avoided if the mobile betting option was more convenient.
The “Sportsbook Rhode Island” app, which became operational in early September, is easy enough to download and set up, as long as the user is prepared to fill it out with every conceivable form of personal identity. That’s standard enough to ensure responsible adults are using it, but the first hitch is that a user can’t link their credit card to it, only an actual banking account, which means you better have your bank account and routing number. The next step is to physically register at Twin River in order to activate the account.
The poor results in the first month — only 45 percent of the 12,000-plus registered mobile accounts had their accounts activated by mid-October — illustrates the issue.
In New Jersey, where mobile betting has flourished, all that’s needed to bet is to be of legal age, a credit card, and to be within the state border. It’s virtually the same mobile setup New Hampshire will introduce as soon as it begins sports betting in the next few months.
There is talk Rhode Island will fix its mobile setup but not before the end of this NFL season. For now, bettors who don’t want to drive to Twin River or Tiverton to activate their account can use the app as a resource to look up current lines.
‘Good luck with that’
The human teller tried to upsell one new bettor intent on placing four $5 bets by mentioning, “You know, you can win more if you parlay those bets.”
The new bettor, however, was risk-averse and not keen on the all-or-nothing logic of parlays.
To prove a contrarian point, the new bettor spent less than 30 seconds studying the lines before placing bets: three on the favorite to cover, the other on the under in the Patriots game.
Inside the spiffy, modern sportsbook, one of the Connecticut guys saw the new bettor from the parking lot and asked him about his bets. When he heard about taking the under on the Patriots, he looked at his pal with a look of concern, and when it was met with a smirk, the chattier man turned to the new bettor with glee and patted him on the shoulder.
“Good luck with that!”
Before kickoff, every bettor’s a genius. And a wiseguy.
In the aftermath
As the clock for the first quarter, the first half, then the second half wound down, there were extreme mood swings. Rowdy first-half revelers turned into sullen second-half losers, and vice versa.
The Connecticut guys, who had started to look glum around halftime, must have run out of luck. They were nowhere to be found by the end of the games, when winners bounded to the teller.
Losers wandered and muttered things like “Where was this offense in the first half?”
One zombie-eyed bettor walked up to a stranger and said, without expression, “I think someone knew Denver was going to win today. The line went from 7½ to 4½.”
“I find that kind of funny.”
What the new bettor found funny was that he hit on three of his four bets. One of them was the Patriots and the under.
With eight extra bucks in his pocket, the new bettor stepped out of the sportsbook and hopped back into his car for a drive back over the Massachusetts border, his dizzying day having turned into a decadent reverie.