This weekend, the action at Rivers Sportsbook is about to get hotter with one of the busiest three-day stretches of big-time football games of the year — six NFL Wild Card playoff games over the next two days, including the Buffalo Bills’ first home postseason game since 1996, followed by the College Football Playoff championship game Monday night between Ohio State and Alabama.
Rivers Casino and Resort reopened in early September — just in time for the start of the NFL season — following months of shutdown due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the sportsbook has been busy ever since.
Rivers Sportsbook is a luxury-styled sports lounge furnished with individual VIP club chairs and table seating, including five private booths with TV monitors – each accommodating up to six people and available to reserve. Currently COVID restrictions apply.
Though capacity in the casino is limited to 25 percent of maximum, sportsbook manager Hal Wafer — nicknamed “Harborside Hal” — said the public was enthusiastic about getting back to betting on games at Rivers, one of only eight sites in the state where sports gambling is allowed.
“We’ve been busy right along, all year, since right after we came back from COVID,” Wafer said in a phone interview earlier this week. “Like we say, ‘football is king,’ and people were very excited and wanting to wager. They love wagering on football, so ever since [reopening], it’s been very busy.”
Reopening in time for football season has fueled the sportsbook’s comeback, and this weekend could be among the biggest in months.
The NFL expanded its postseason from 12 to 14 teams this year, upping the number of games during Wild Card Weekend from four to six, with tripleheaders slated for both Saturday and Sunday.
Tack on a highly-anticipated college football title game Monday night, and it’s a recipe for plenty of business over a three-day stretch.
“It’s going to be a busy weekend when we get in the playoffs,” Wafer said. “Now, we’ve got three games Saturday and three on Sunday.
“The excitement is palpable. You can really feel it.”
The presence of the Bills — who are the No. 2 seed in the AFC after a 13-3 regular season and who will kick off the playoffs Saturday at 1 p.m. at home against the Indianapolis Colts — should account for some added action.
Wafer expects a little extra money — both for Saturday’s game and wagers on the Bills reaching or winning the Super Bowl — to be put down on Buffalo this weekend from local fans.
“It adds extra rooting excitement and wagering excitement for hardcore Bills fans,” Wafer said, “or even semi-lukewarm Bills fans rooting for a New York team.”
With a busy weekend expected, Wafer encouraged bettors to arrive early to place their weekend bets. The self-betting kiosks open daily at 6 a.m., with the live betting windows opening an hour later.
Having a busy NFL and college football season, even at a reduced capacity, has been a boon both for the sportsbook and Rivers as a whole. The casino took its first sports bets in 2019 after in-person sports gambling at a select number of casinos was approved by the state, and business was strong through the first football season at the sportsbook, capped off by Super Bowl LIV last February.
However, Rivers lost out on what would have been its biggest post-football month of sports betting when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was canceled by the pandemic, which also resulted in the casino closing its doors for nearly six months.
No March Madness was certainly a blow, Wafer said, but an understandable one considering the situation.
“It’s just what it was with the COVID pandemic,” he said. “I’m just glad everyone’s safe and healthy, and everyone that comes to the sportsbook is very courteous and patient with all the protocols we have in place. With March Madness, that’s just what it was. You can’t say any more to that. We just had to deal with it and work through it, as we have.”
Since reopening, state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam — a member of the Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee and a longtime sponsor of sports betting legislation — said the sportsbook has been a saving grace with Rivers’ overall capacity limited due to social distancing guidelines.
“Rivers is doing 25 percent [capacity] and I talked to them, and from our conversations, the sportsbook is their biggest business right now,” Santabarbara said. “Most people go in there for that.”
Wafer said he was impressed by the guidelines put in place by Rivers management to ensure COVID-19 protocols were followed at the sportsbook — including plexiglass at both the in-person betting windows and the self-operated kiosks, plus regular disinfecting of contact points.
“Guests and customers are commenting that they feel very good coming into the casino,” he said, “and particularly the sportsbook, with the cleaning measures and everything we have in place.”
Wednesday’s move by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to put his support behind the legalization of mobile sports betting could help make up some of the gap in business brought on by the casino’s limited capacity. Rivers’ sister company, Rush Street Interactive, already operates mobile sports betting platforms in six other states.
“To move this online would allow them to generate significantly more revenue,” Santabarbara said.
“Having a mobile component and a brick-and-mortar [sportsbook],” Wafer said, “if you’re doing it correctly, it really should overlap one with the other and they both end up being positives.”
And, Wafer added, mobile betting won’t take away the ambience of the sportsbook as a place to watch and bet on games, and plenty of bettors still enjoy coming into the sportsbook to chat with “Harborside Hal” and trade thoughts on the games.
“When you know more,” Wafer said, “it makes it more fun and allows the possibility to actually try to win at the game of sports betting. It just makes it a lot more fun.
“It’s a participation game, where you can not only have your opinion or your thoughts, but you get to wager on those, also.”