The transformation of Monmouth Park from venerable New Jersey racetrack to full-blown, Las Vegas-style race and sportsbook began years ago.
The William Hill Race and Sports Bar, formerly the track’s cafeteria, opened in 2013. There are a few dozen TVs of varying sizes and an oval bar in the center. It’s a decent-sized room, with a capacity of around 250, but would easily fit inside your typical Buffalo Wild Wings.
Painted across one of the blue walls in white lettering, it says “The home of betting.” For now, though, it remains more sports bar than sportsbook.
Officials say there’s a problem with the current setup: It’s not big enough to handle what they believe is coming.
On Monday morning, the United States Supreme Court heard an hour of oral arguments in a case that could open the door to allowing New Jersey — and potentially many more states — to offer legal sports betting. A decision is expected by the end of June at the latest. Some stakeholders aren’t waiting.
“We’re moving ahead, getting ready to go,” said Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill U.S., the official betting provider for Monmouth Park.
Thirty years ago, Atlantic City was in its prime.
Then-casino owner Donald Trump was attracting big events to town, including Mike Tyson heavyweight fights and a Wrestlemania IV in 1988.
The rise of Atlantic City’s prominence as an event destination coincided with a construction boom, highlighted by the building of Trump’s $1.2 billion Taj Mahal casino. It was Atlantic City’s largest casino when it opened in 1990, and dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world” by its owner. But it also marked the beginning of the end of Atlantic City’s first prime.
One year after the Taj Mahal opened, the business filed for Chapter 11 reorganization, according to The New York Times.
With Trump’s properties struggling, construction in Atlantic City dwindled in the ’90s. Gambling, however, did not. In fact, gaming revenue increased marginally year over year for the entire decade and into the new century. In 2003, the Borgata, billed as the first Las Vegas-level casino in Atlantic City, opened and energized the industry. By 2006, Atlantic City was peaking again. The 12 casinos combined to win a state-record $5.2 billion.
It’s been downhill ever since.
Faced with growing competition in neighboring states and a crippling recession, five Atlantic City casinos have closed, reportedly more than 10,000 workers have lost their jobs and gaming revenue has been sliced in half. In 2016, the remaining casinos won just $2.6 billion. And that is actually good news: 2016 was the first year gaming revenue didn’t decline since 2006.
“I’m hesitant to use the word recovering; I would use the word stabilized,” Robert DellaFave, editor in chief of industry trade site NJonlinegambling.com, avid gambler and lifelong New Jerseyan, said of the current state of the Atlantic City casino industry.
“Now, if you look at it from an individual casino perspective,” DellaFave added, “they are doing better. Each individual casino is doing better, and you do see a lot more money being invested by way of renovation … so there is hope that we will see a rebound.”
The past decade has been even tougher on New Jersey’s three racetracks: the Meadowlands, Monmouth Park and Freehold Raceway. In 2009, Gov. Chris Christie nixed an annual subsidy that the tracks had been receiving from casinos, part of a deal that kept video poker and slot machines out of the racetracks.
“Horse racing officials struck me at the time as genuinely convinced that without the subsidy, the industry would have to shut its doors,” recalled John Brennan, who covered New Jersey tracks and casinos for The Bergen Record for 2002 to ’17. “But once confronted with that reality, they rallied. Racing dates were cut by more than half. Thousands of employees lost jobs, and many others had to accept pay cuts. It’s a much smaller industry now, but it has survived.”
Some racetracks in bordering states like Pennsylvania and New York have slots machines and video poker. New Jersey tracks do not, and it’s left them at a major disadvantage, DellaFave said.
“[The tracks] are in a bit of a pickle,” he said. “That’s why I think sports betting would be definitely a game-changer.”
A fully mature New Jersey sports betting market, including online, could produce $502 million in gaming revenue, according to industry research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. A study by Oxford Economics found that roughly $8 billion could be wagered annually on sports in a New Jersey legal market. Clearly, for both the tracks and casinos, being able to offer legal sports betting wouldn’t hurt.
That’s the plan at the Borgata, where Jay Rood, vice president of race and sports for MGM Resorts International, traveled in mid-November to scout possible locations to install a sportsbook.
“We already have a great racebook [at the Borgata],” Rood told ESPN from his Nevada office at the Mirage. “We zoned in on a space that’s underutilized a little bit, close to the existing racebook.”
The design and budget for building the Borgata book are still being discussed, Rood said.
“Our desire is to hub it out of Nevada. Obviously, that depends on what the regulators allow,” he added. “We don’t think we can sit on our hands and do nothing until the last second.”
William Hill is taking a similar approach at Monmouth Park.
The second phase of the transformation plan features a spruced-up, overflow area in the grandstand outside of the current sports bar, which would expand the capacity by approximately 2,500 people, according to Dennis Drazen, an attorney who represents Monmouth Park.
The third phase is the construction of a standalone sportsbook, similar to what you might find at a William Hill sportsbook in Las Vegas.
“I don’t think you can have enough TVs,” said Asher, William Hill’s CEO.
An outdoor dining venue, currently home to The Lady’s Secret Café, and valet parking are two areas being considered for the new sportsbook, estimated to cost $5 million or more. But, for now, the new Monmouth Park sportsbook is still a ways down the road. There’s a very real chance the track — and other New Jersey gaming operators — could be taking bets at some point in 2018.
“We can be open to take wagers in two weeks,” Drazin told ESPN.
New Jersey may be a first mover, if the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 is lifted, but it’s not expected to be the last state to get into the legal bookmaking game. Fifteen states have introduced sports betting legislation in 2017. In addition to New Jersey, Connecticut, Mississippi, New York and Pennsylvania have already passed legislation that would allow them to move quickly if the Supreme Court changes the game.
“We’ve had discussions [about Mississippi] but we haven’t identified necessarily anything specific there yet,” said Rood of the MGM, which owns Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi.
“We would be stupid not to be looking at all viable options at this point. Any place that we have a brick-and-mortar operation, we’re evaluating what the chances are of being able to offer sports betting there. It’s fun. It’s exciting. We’re hoping that we’re not just spinning our tires here. Even if we are, we think it’s worth the effort to be prepared.”
The push to expand legal sports betting in the U.S. began in New Jersey. The debate will be decided in Washington. For the Garden State’s ailing racetracks and casinos, there’s a lot on the line.
New Jersey State Sen. Ray Lesniak has been there since the beginning. Lesniak championed a ballot measure in 2011 that put the question of whether to legalize sports betting to voters. In November 2011, the referendum passed by better than a two-to-one margin. Gov. Christie signed the subsequent legislation in January 2012, and the New Jersey Department of Gaming Enforcement posted sports betting regulations on its website later in the year. That August, the NCAA, NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball filed suit against Christie, setting off a five-year legal saga that, after many twists and turns, has reached the Supreme Court.
“One of my proudest, happiest moments was when the Supreme Court took the case,” Lesniak said. “I’m just so excited for this to come to fruition. This will spring life into Atlantic City, make it a heyday once again.”