HARRINGTON, Del. — Tim Garrett and Chris Long plopped into front-row seats at Murphy’s Race/Sports Book & Grill inside Delaware’s Harrington Raceway & Casino and began to ponder their plays for that weekend’s NFL wild-card round playoff games.
“We both live across the street, so we bet on games every week,” said Garrett, a 33-year-old optician. “We haven’t had any luck this season, though. There are about 10 of us that do this, and Chris is the only one in our group who has won even once this year.”
Garrett and Long, a 34-year-old nurse, mulled over the sheets for about 20 minutes and decided to play all four underdogs. Then they moved toward the betting window while Meatloaf’s “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad” wafted from the loudspeakers.
When it comes to sports betting in Delaware, two out of three isn’t good enough. Under the rules adopted by the Delaware Lottery when sports betting first began in 2010, bettors are required to wager on at least three games — called parlays — during the regular season and early rounds of the playoffs and must win all three to collect.
“The first time I ever bet here, I put $5 on 10 teams,” Long said. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I won all 10 games and wound up with $4,000. I celebrated by buying three of us tickets to the Eagles-Cowboys game on ‘Monday Night Football’ that year. But what it really meant was that I could keep betting on games for two more years without having to worry if I lost.”
Bettors have been visiting Delaware’s sports books quite often this year, despite the state’s decision to allow 31 restaurants and bars throughout the state to carry the sports lottery cards for the first time.
The state’s three sports books have been doing brisk business — something Atlantic City’s casinos are hoping to get a piece of in the near future. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill in January 2012 that would permit sports betting in Atlantic City’s 12 casinos and the state’s four racetracks. New Jersey, which missed an opportunity to get sports betting in 1992, is arguing that laws prohibiting sports betting are unconstitutional because it is allowed in Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon.
U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp rejected arguments that professional sports leagues couldn’t prove they would be harmed by the introduction of sports wagering in New Jersey and is expected to set a trial date later this month.
The limited sports betting on the NFL has grown in popularity. As of Jan. 10, NFL betting had generated a total handle of $24.2 million in the state this season, compared with $16.9 million at the same point in 2011, Delaware Lottery Director Vernon Kirk said in a phone interview. The three sports books accounted for $18.2 million, an increase of more than 7 percent over last year’s $16.9 million.
“The three casinos are showing no cannibalization whatsoever,” Kirk said. “And they were very supportive of allowing the 31 establishments to offer (sports betting cards).”
One reason for the support is that Delaware casino executives didn’t think the change would have much of an effect on their own sports betting operations.
Dover Downs CEO Ed Sutor, a Ventnor resident and former Atlantic City gambling executive, explained that casino sports books cater to a different sort of gambler than those who would stop at a sports bar to place a wager.
“Seventy percent of our business comes from out of state, though only 2 percent of our customers come from New Jersey,” Sutor said in a phone interview. “The people that are coming to visit Dover Downs are not going to stop at a grocery store to bet on the NFL, they’re going to do it at our place.”
Although Sutor declined to provide exact figures, he said sports betting at Dover Downs has increased by 25 percent this season, though it still has only a minimal impact on his property.
He considers the sports book to be a place for customers to watch NFL games while taking a break from playing blackjack, craps or poker.
“What we make in our sports book is not significant in the least,” Sutor said in a phone interview. “The average bet is only $20. But we find that it has a direct correlation with our table games. Ninety percent of the people that visit our sports book are men, and they also account for 80 percent of our table games players.”
The overall lack of interest in sports betting in Delaware may be due to the limited offerings.
Delaware’s sports betting is restricted to the NFL and horse racing. The sports books are not permitted to offer wagers on college football or basketball, or professional basketball, baseball or even boxing. Dover Downs offers live boxing as part of its entertainment, but fans cannot place wagers on the fights they’re watching live. In addition, hundreds of thousands of fans show up at the property twice a year to watch the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at nearby Dover International Speedway, but they can’t bet on their favorite drivers.
“We built a nice facility here, but it’s not as popular as it could have been,” Sutor said. “When the opportunity to have sports betting came about, we went into it full bore. We wanted to go Las Vegas style with this. We even went out to Las Vegas and brought an architect to look at the best sports books out there.
“We had no intention of just offering parlay betting and just on football. We went against the NFL in at least three court cases in Delaware and won them all, but they took it to the Federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia and we got blindsided. They told us we had to stick to the lottery system we had in the 1970s and only for NFL. That meant no baseball, basketball, college sports, no nothing. We were devastated by it and we appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they refused to hear it.”
“Are we glad we have sports betting? Yes. Has it helped us? A little bit. But it could have been so much more, and we’re hoping that it will happen some day.”
As game time approached, Murphy’s got more crowded and rowdy. Soon, all 75 seats were filled in front of 15 TVs, including three large screens. Most of the spectators wore Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens or Washington Redskins gear — Garrett had an Eagles sweatshirt and hat, while Long wore a Joe Flacco Ravens jersey — but rooted loudly for the Vikings-Packers game.
Nearly 100 bettors stood in line hoping to submit their parlay cards or off-the-board wagers 15 minutes before the Cincinnati Bengals-Houston Texans game began. And two of the four big TVs were switched to the game.
“Of course I wish I could bet one team,” Garrett said. “Everybody has that one lock that comes through for them. But this is better than nothing. Before we got sports betting, I just played fantasy football at home. With this, I can come over here, bet $20 and get $10 in free slot play, watch the games, have a couple of beers and enjoy myself.”
The fans at Dover Downs included Dover native Phillip Brown and his wife, Toni, along with Washington, D.C., resident Bernard Gibson. Gibson wore a Yankees sweatshirt and an “RGIII” hat honoring Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who was in action the next day against the Seattle Seahawks.
“We bet every week, but we never win,” Phillip Brown said with a laugh. “I got really close to hitting it big one time. I bet all 15 games, and if I had hit all 15, I would have won $100,000. I won 14 games, and I tied on the Redskins-Ravens game. The spread was three points, and the Redskins won by three in overtime. Unfortunately, a tie counts as a loss in this.
“Just to get that close was pretty exciting. That’s enough to keep you coming back.”
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