SCHENECTADY — It was early Thursday afternoon when Rivers Casino & Resort Sportsbook manager Hal Wafer walked into his 5,000-square-foot sports betting venue that houses TV monitors, tabletop seats and private booths. The pace that day was slow, but the industry veteran’s attention was already clearly on Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2.
Over the course of the next week, Wafer is expecting throngs of anxious bettors to lay down wagers on the Super Bowl featuring the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, a game that marks the first time Rivers will be taking bets on the Super Bowl.
Wafer, known as “Harborside Hal,” took time out of his busy preparation schedule to speak with The Daily Gazette about expectations as Rivers gears up for its biggest sports betting event of the year. Aside from the Sportsbook, the property will host a VIP Super Bowl party for invited guests in the main ballroom. (Answers have been edited for space.)
Question: Well, Hal, here we are, closing in on Super Bowl LIV, and Rivers will be accepting bets for the first time on America’s biggest game. What's the biggest challenge that you'll be facing as game time approaches?
Answer: It's not really so much a challenge anymore. We were a bare-walls project here when we started in the summer during Major League Baseball and when you're doing a bare-walls sportsbook, the biggest thing is training the personnel. We had to train ticket writers and supervisors, and teach them how to deal with customers that come here, via the betting window or the live 14 kiosk machines that we have. Our personnel have been here for a long length of time now, over six months, so they are all well-seasoned. As for the customer, even though they may have been here before, the Super Bowl is entirely different because of all the different kinds of props. I'm sure we're going to get a lot more questions, so it's a continuous learning process for us. Even though we've had all this time to teach the staff, the large number of props makes it a challenge for us.
Q: What type of staffing do you expect to have working on Super Bowl Sunday?
A: We will be at full staff with 16 people working from 8 in the morning to midnight. They will be doing double shifts.
Q: You mentioned the popularity of prop bets, or what some might refer to as betting propositions. Years ago, talk at a Super Bowl party revolved around the point spread or the over/under line. Today, it’s more about these prop bets. Of all the prop bets, and you will have over 300 available to wager on for the Super Bowl, what one is expected to receive the most play?
A: It’s the coin flip. It’s always been an interesting prop bet. It’s easy to understand, with the bettor selecting heads or tails, and it’s attractive to someone like the casual bettor. Another big prop bet is how the first score of the game will happen. In the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers, the first score of the game was a safety. Odds were something like 150-1, then once it hit, they made it like 75-1.
Q: So basically, prop bets keep you at the Super Bowl party longer, and captivate your interest from opening kickoff to final buzzer?
A: Exactly. Player props have grown in popularity. Just look at the numbers. A few years ago, there were maybe 50 prop bets, and now we have over 300. One example would be, “Will Mahomes throw more than two touchdown passes.” Player props are also popular and the return is great when betting on something like a defensive player winning the MVP award. As we get closer to the Super Bowl, more and more prop bets will be added to our prop bets sheet from our U.K. operator. These types of bets have no effect on the outcome of the game. It keeps you engaged the whole time.
Q: Approximately 98.2 million people watched the Super Bowl in 2019, with another 23 million Americans wagering on the game, according to the American Gaming Association. What makes the Super Bowl such an attractive event for bettors?
A: Football is king around here. I think at this point in the year, after you've hit 17 weeks of the regular season and going through the rigors of the playoffs, these are the two best teams. You're basically getting the best of the best, and a lot of known factors are already completely known about these teams. In the viewing of the game, people understand the rules they learned while growing up or perhaps playing in high school or college. So, the participation of wagering becomes really easy because they understand the rules. It makes the wager more attractive and then you throw in, you know, 300 different props, so to speak, then it becomes really interesting. Sports wagering with parlays are so attractive because you can bet a little and get back a big return.
Q: What would be a “successful” Super Bowl Sunday for Rivers?
A: Well, it's a few different levels. I mean, one, from the customer satisfaction to the business standpoint of hoping to come out ahead. Making a little or making a substantial amount is always in play, but the key is for people to enjoy themselves, and that we get the exposure and they get to experience it. Here at Rivers, Super Bowl Sunday introduces our guests to the other aspects of the casino, from food, beverage and other casino games, to the hotel where people get to enjoy those amenities on top of the actual event. We do our best to showcase our beautiful resort.
Q: You’ve been involved in the sports betting business for a long time – first in Las Vegas, then Mississippi and now here in Schenectady. How is the Schenectady sports bettor different from bettors in Las Vegas and Mississippi when it comes to the NFL?
A: When I was down in Mississippi, for example, a lot of people weren't brought up by the betting lingo and the verbiage. So the training of the workers was important. College football is big in Mississippi, so Saturdays were busier than NFL Sundays. Basically, the bulk of the people were less knowledgeable in a general sense than here. People here are definitely a lot more knowledgeable. I'm originally from central New York, so growing up as a kid I learned the lingo myself, and I expected that to be the same here, and it has. I would say that the Rivers bettor is more comparable to the Las Vegas sports bettor. There are a lot of similarities with both with understanding the verbiage. Also, both are a bit more sophisticated in wagering and doing parlays, like exotic-type of bets, than other parts of the country that I've seen.
Q: Most states that have legalized sports betting also have the capability to allow bettors to place their wagers online through mobile devices. New Jersey and Pennsylvania are two neighboring states that have legalized sports betting, as well as mobile sports betting. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not authorize the use of mobile sports betting in his executive budget for the fiscal year 2021. Looking into your crystal ball, what kind of impact do you think mobile sports betting would have on Super Bowl wagering and Rivers, in general, if it becomes legal in New York?
A: Mobile betting would decrease some foot traffic, but it would also be an extension of our business. The overall effect would be huge and enormous.
Q: Let’s talk about your nickname. “Harborside Hall” — do you approve?
A: The nickname was given to me based on the location of the Rivers Sportsbook. I’m there all the time. So it’s a perfect fit.
Q: You’ll definitely be there all morning, all afternoon and all evening on Super Bowl Sunday. When do you think you’ll finally be able to walk out to your car, turn the ignition, drive off and call it a day?
A: It’ll be the next day. It won’t be Super Bowl Sunday anymore. It’ll be the Super Bowl Monday hangover.
Contact Paul Antonelli at [email protected].