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Betting battleground: The fight over where people bet in the future

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A battle to be the place to watch and bet on sports is raging around the country, and the Las Vegas casino owner sitting on his corner barstool chuckling like Norm Peterson from “Cheers” is very much in the fight.

Whether drinking with guests at Longbar at The D hotel casino, or making big sports bets with competing bookmakers around town, Derek Stevens has emerged as the most approachable casino owner in Las Vegas since arriving from Detroit in the 1990s. Now everyone is watching his next move, as if the future of sports betting in Sin City depends on it.

The coronavirus pandemic crushed Las Vegas’ gaming and tourism industry back in the spring. The sportsbooks sat dormant for months, and revenue plummeted. According to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, gaming revenue in April suffered a 99.6% decrease compared with April 2019. Casinos are back open now, and crowds (of mostly locals) have returned to sportsbooks, which are operating at limited capacity during their most lucrative time of the year, football season. But the pandemic is just one of many challenges facing giant sportsbooks such as Caesars Palace, The Mirage and the SuperBook.

The professional sports leagues themselves have entered the bookmaking business and are aiming to lure fans out of the casinos and into placing bets inside their own stadiums and arenas. The location of sportsbooks, however, has become somewhat irrelevant. As regulated sports betting spreads across the United States, most bettors have access to bookmakers in their pockets, on their phones. The bulk of sports betting now takes place online, so it’s understandable that casinos outside Nevada are more often opting to build sports bars rather than the giant amphitheater sportsbooks that are so popular in Las Vegas.

Not so fast, Stevens says. He is going in the other direction, a contrarian play. On Wednesday, Circa, Stevens’ new resort in downtown Las Vegas, opens with what’s being billed as the “world’s largest sportsbook.”

“There’s still an awful lot of demand for watching sports,” Stevens says. “As much as everyone loves being on their phones, there’s still an element where people like to get together and watch a game.”

‘The screen is just massive’

The seat with Stevens’ name on it at Longbar is just a few steps from the entrance onto Fremont Street Experience, a tourist hot spot that combines an old-school Las Vegas look with a Mardi Gras feel. It can get crazy, and Stevens has a front-row seat to it all. The man has seen a lot, but he wasn’t prepared for the first time he saw the towering odds board at his new sportsbook at Circa light up.

“I was with a pretty big group, and when they threw all the screens on, we all just jumped back because it was so bright,” Stevens says with a laugh.

Circa is the first ground-up resort built in downtown Las Vegas since 1980, standing 458 feet tall. When completed, it will have 44 floors, 777 rooms, a 5,000-square-foot multitiered swimming pool amphitheater and a nine-story transportation hub dubbed the “Garage Mahal.”

Construction began on Feb. 19, 2019, with a target of opening in December 2020. Like all projects started before the pandemic, Circa faced significant hurdles in 2020, including what Stevens calls some “uh-oh moments.”

“If you’re a batter at the plate, and you’re sitting fastball, and you get a curveball thrown your way, you’ve got to make an adjustment,” Stevens says.

At its peak, there were 1,200 construction workers on site daily, before COVID-19 safety protocols were put in place in March. That created new challenges; for example, only three workers were allowed to ride together in a construction elevator. A round trip to the top of the tower in the elevator took five minutes. They struggled to get enough workers to the top levels in an efficient manner and were running out of time. At one point there were fears that workers would have to be furloughed, with no guarantee that they’d come back.

At the advice of his team, Stevens audibled, electing to have his workforce focus on the first five floors of the casino. That decision allowed Circa to open eight weeks ahead of schedule.

“Great call by the guys,” Stevens says.

Stevens is tight-lipped about the cost, declining to offer even a hint about how much he has invested in Circa. He is direct about his new sportsbook, though — it’s the main attraction.

Three stories tall, the sportsbook at Circa was designed so that it could be seen from everywhere on the casino floor. It features a massive video wall with 78 million pixels that requires 10 people to operate.

“I’ve been part of these meetings, seen the renderings and been a part of the process,” says Matt Metcalf, Circa’s sportsbook director, “and I still don’t think I anticipated how cool it is. The screen is just massive.”

There’s stadium seating, and a broadcast studio. And with an occupancy of 1,000, Circa is certainly upping the ante in the Las Vegas sportsbook game. But is it the last of its kind?

“If we’re very successful, there’s going to be more that come up,” Stevens says. “If we’re not, then there probably won’t be. It kind of depends on how we do.”

Stadium sportsbooks: ‘How do we get in there?’

On a Sunday morning in September, three time zones away from Las Vegas, a line has formed outside the box office at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. People are waiting to place bets.

Since no live sporting events are taking place at the arena because of the pandemic, the box office has been converted into a William Hill U.S. sportsbook, with betting windows and self-serve kiosks. It is the first retail sportsbook ever to take bets at a major American sports venue. In September, an average of 3,800 bets per day, totaling $12.2 million, were placed at the sportsbook.

With a permanent space inside the arena expected to open in 2021, hopefully alongside the return of the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, this is another reminder that competition is increasing for where people watch and bet on sports.

In May 2018, the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, the federal statute that had restricted regulated sports betting to primarily Nevada. The decision ended a six-year courtroom saga between the NCAA, NFL and other major professional sports leagues versus the state of New Jersey, and it altered the sports betting landscape in the U.S. Since the ruling, legal sportsbooks have begun operating in 18 states and the District of Columbia, which was the first jurisdiction to give sports venues the right to offer sports betting.

In January 2019, Monumental Sports, Ted Leonsis’ sports and entertainment ownership group, sent out a request for proposal regarding building a sportsbook inside Capital One Arena. The RFP landed on the desk of Dan Shapiro, vice president of strategy and growth for William Hill U.S. He took it to his boss, CEO Joe Asher, and asked for his thoughts.

“I wasn’t sure we should even respond to it,” Asher says, noting that competitor MGM has a casino in the D.C. area and that Leonsis had an established investment in DraftKings.

“We certainly thought it was a long shot,” Shapiro says. “But since this was unchartered territory, doing something at a professional sports venue, we wanted to take our best shot at it.”

It worked, and on Oct. 3, 2019, Leonsis and Asher sat side by side, announcing plans to build a physical sportsbook inside Capital One Arena.

“It just shows how times have changed, from litigating in court to putting a sportsbook in the arena,” Asher says.

Capital One Arena isn’t alone. The Chicago Cubs have announced plans to build a sportsbook at, or in the vicinity of, Wrigley Field with DraftKings, and more arenas are considering following suit.

Dwayne MacEwen, the principal and founder of DMAC Architecture, told ESPN in the spring that his firm was discussing stadium sports-betting spaces with multiple professional teams that were “ready to go when the world goes back to normal.”

MacEwen envisions sports-betting spaces eventually moving to the lower bowl of arenas, offering comfortable leather recliners and a private bar with a digital ticker featuring odds and scores scrolling across it.

“We want people walking in to stop, point and go, ‘What is that? How do we get in there?'” MacEwen said.

“I honestly think COVID-19 has accelerated where sportsbooks were going anyway,” he added. “They’re more about hospitality, entertainment spaces. They’re more accessible to everyone, not just the bookie.”

Back to the future

It’s mid-March in Las Vegas, and mostly dark and quiet inside the Westgate casino — an eerie scene, especially knowing how busy it should be during March Madness.

Lines typically form outside sportsbooks at 5 a.m., or even earlier, on the opening Thursday and Friday of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. This year, though, it was canceled because of the pandemic.

Today there are only a few flashes of light and a random jingle from a slot machine as Jay Kornegay, a 30-year Las Vegas bookmaker, strolls to his office at the SuperBook without seeing a soul. The SuperBook’s dazzling 240-by-18-foot LED video screen, which had run 24 hours a day since it was installed in 2015, is off.

On March 18, a day before the first full day of the NCAA tournament, the Westgate closed its doors for the first time since opening on July 2, 1969, as the Las Vegas Hilton.

“It was to a point where we didn’t even have locks on doors,” Kornegay says. “We had to make modifications to all our entrances and basically chain them up.”

They’re still not allowed to be at full capacity, but the demand for sports betting remains strong. With Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL all returning in August, more than $475.1 million was bet with Nevada sportsbooks, a record high for the month.

The majority of that money, roughly 63%, was wagered via mobile apps, though. In New Jersey, which is now regularly surpassing Nevada’s sports betting monthly handle, more than 90% of bets are placed online. Going to the window and handing over cash to place bets is nearing vintage status, but there are still a few holdouts.

“Call me weird or old-fashioned, but I like to have the ticket in my hand,” says Michael Jester, a 27-year-old data science consultant who lives 20 minutes from Capital One Arena in D.C.

No doubt, sports betting isn’t going anywhere. However, there are questions about where it will take place, how many people will be there and whether we’ll see another “world’s largest sportsbook” built in Las Vegas.

“Absolutely,” Kornegay says, “because I think sports betting is going to become more popular than ever. I think it’s an underserved market. I believe the sports-betting space is going to grow to numbers that we’ve never seen before, and I would suspect that not only are we going to see one but I think there will probably be a couple more of them built over time.”

It’s been just eight months since the Chiefs beat the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, but it feels like eight years ago. Kornegay thinks back to the standing-room only crowd he had for that game, right before the pandemic hit.

“I think it might take a little while before we get Super Bowl-like crowds again,” Kornegay says, “but I think they’re going to return eventually.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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