SCHENECTADY — A gambling industry veteran has come aboard to run Rivers Casino & Resorts’ soon-to-open sports betting lounge.
Hal Wafer was announced as the Rivers Sportsbook manager Wednesday, the same day state regulations for the business of sports betting were published in the state register, making them official. Casinos in New York can now apply for their licenses.
Rivers expects to complete its Sportsbook Lounge in July and hopes to begin taking bets on sporting events before the NFL season starts in early September.
The lounge will have 20 employees besides Wafer, six of them internal transfers and 14 new hires, all of whom will undergo specialized training for the new role.
Wafer, who’ll be known as “Harbor Hal” after the Mohawk Harbor community in which Rivers sits, said he’ll be a visible and accessible presence in the Sportsbook, sharing his knowledge with staff and guests alike as they learn about the rules of new-to-New York sports betting.
“Our big thing is educating the customer,” he said. “I’m very approachable in the casino with any answers.”
As the sportsbook supervisor for the last 12 months at the Caesars Horseshoe casino in Robinsonville, Mississippi, outside of Memphis, Tennessee, Wafer — then “Horseshoe Hal” — hosted a regular segment on local radio, and he’d like to do that here, too.
Asked if sports betting is primarily designed for sports fans or gamblers, Wafter said it could be either.
“It just becomes a great additional avenue to direct foot traffic to the casino, or the restaurants, or the hotel," Wafter said. "The hotel’s very nice, I’ve stayed there myself.”
Sports betting has long been legal in Nevada and a few other states, and has been a large illegal industry for much longer. A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed the other states to legalize it.
“I’m a very instinctive person,” Wafer said. “I’ve been ahead of the curve on this for quite some time, waiting for the legalization of sports betting. I’ve just been waiting for this quite a while.”
The 53-year-old Utica-area native developed a love for horse racing while attending nearby Vernon Downs and more-distant Saratoga Race Course with his father. He made the business of horse and sport betting his career, starting in Race & Sportsbook Operations at Coast Resorts in Las Vegas, where he learned oddsmaking from giants in that community, Bob Gregorka and Muggsy Muniz.
“I worked for a couple of legendary guys,” Wafer recalled. “They were the first guys that gave me a position, mentoring me.”
There is a bit of a learning curve — betting on an athletic contest is more than pulling the handle on a slot machine or dropping chips on number at the roulette table. There are multiple ways to place a straight bet on a single game, or parlay bets on multiple games, or bet over/under the combined score, or bet on a game in progress.
These bets will be on a wide array of sports, including baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer, professional as well as college-level.
Wafer said he’s excited to be back in New York after decades in the West and the year in Mississippi. The main regulatory difference he sees here compared with other states where sports betting is legal is that New York isn’t allowing bets on college games involving New York schools.
A major difference he sees at Rivers vs. all the other casinos is its atmosphere.
“There’s a different kind of feel to the casino here than others I’ve been to,” he said. “It has a really nice airy feel to it, with the non-smoking and the layout, lighting, structure … It’s just a very well-designed casino.”