NICHOLS – Francis Melia shuffled into the glistening FanDuel Sportsbook on Friday evening at Tioga Downs Casino Resort, an electrified oasis in a rural stretch of the Southern Tier along the Pennsylvania border, just a 30-minute drive from his home outside Binghamton.
The 82-year-old pushed his walker past the frosted glass windows depicting football plays, across the low pile blue carpet and toward a sprawling bank of TV screens, a moth to a flame. He lowered himself into one of a dozen plush lounge chairs, front and center.
Melia said he used to illegally gamble on football and basketball with a bookie, because having money on the line made watching games more interesting. But he decided to stop after spending a beautiful day indoors, swearing at his TV at the top of his lungs.
Now, midsummer regular season baseball games unfold on the monitors overhead.
He was the only patron in the room, and he didn’t place a bet.
“Wait until football comes,” Melia said. “They’re going to be mobbed, absolutely mobbed. The World Series, it’ll be mobbed. The only disadvantage is you’ve got to be here to bet. You can’t pick up a phone and just conveniently call it in. But the facility is beautiful.
“I can’t get over this screen I’m looking at. Holy mackerel! Those people on the screen are probably as big as they would be if they were here in life. And look at these chairs. They say, ‘Come! Come!’ They call you in here. I think this is a wonderful addition. There’s nothing like this in the area.”
Legalized sports betting has come to New York, with two casinos offering gamblers the chance to bet on athletic events, in addition to games of chance. Others are set to open in coming weeks, one even closer to Buffalo, though it remains unclear when one might open in the immediate area, thanks largely to legal issues between the Seneca Nation and New York State.
But the odds are good that Western New Yorkers will eventually be able to make a short drive to downtown Buffalo or Niagara Falls to have a legal, financial stake in the athletic drama playing on TV screens before them.
Will they also be able to do so legally from a computer or phone?
Getting the kinks out
Earlier on Friday, during the official grand opening of the FanDuel Sportsbook at Tioga Downs, multibillionaire casino and racetrack owner Jeff Gural delivered a few words to a small group of reporters and dozens of onlookers, many of them wearing employee badges, in the casino lobby.
He used oversized scissors to snip a ceremonial red ribbon, as Tioga Downs became the second legal sportsbook to open in New York, days after the Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady.
“It’s important to get the kinks out now, while it’s fairly quiet,” said Gural, who also owns the Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey, a short trip from New York City and the home of FanDuel’s first sportsbook. “Mainly baseball, some tennis, golf. Whereas once football starts, you’ve got people coming who will bet on college football, pro football, baseball, and then before you know it you’ve got the NBA and college basketball. You get into the late fall, early winter, you’ve got a lot going on.
“Right now, you let the tellers get their feet wet and our customers figure out how it works. It’s a perfect time to open, really.”
Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo placed the ceremonial first bet.
New York is the 10th state to offer legal sports gambling, taking advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to strike down a federal law that essentially banned wagers outside of Nevada. A prior state law opened the door for sportsbooks at four commercial casinos and seven Indian casinos.
But since online sports gambling remains illegal in New York, wagers must be made in person, which as Melia noted, is decidedly inconvenient, given the rural locations of the sportsbooks and legal and illicit alternatives.
Online sports gambling is legal in New Jersey – where the volume of sports gambling for the first time last month surpassed Nevada to lead the nation – and just a few miles down the road from Tioga Downs in Pennsylvania.
Sportsbooks and online sports gambling also are legal in Canada.
“I think the advantages here would be much greater if we could do it online,” said Joe Gennett, 75, of nearby Endicott, who along with his wife is a regular at Tioga Downs. “Here’s the thing: A lot of people, whether you like it or not, have bookies. If I have a bookie and I’m sitting at home, I can get on the phone and say, ‘Hey, put $100 on such-and-such.’ Bookies keep tabs on you. You might not see each other for a month. But they’re honest, most good bookies.
“Here, you’ve got to drive to Nichols, New York, to give them the money. I think that’s a major disadvantage. And to be honest with you, this has been talked about, this opening, for the last four months. It was anticlimactic.”
Is online coming soon?
A bill to allow online sports gambling in New York, introduced by State Sen. Joseph Addabbo, was approved in the State Senate in June. But it stalled in the Assembly, which – barring an emergency session – won’t vote on the matter until the start of the new legislative year in January, at the earliest.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that legal online sports gambling may require an amendment to the state constitution, which could take years, but proponents believe there’s a workaround – that it’s legal to place online bets so long as the servers processing the transactions are physically based at the four licensed commercial casinos.
That interpretation might also set the stage for satellite sportsbooks in pro arenas and stadiums, such as KeyBank Center and New Era Field.
“That’s how horse racing works,” Gural said. “Ninety percent of the wagering on horses here is online. And somebody is betting either on their phone or at another racetrack or at an OTB (off-track betting), but the bet itself is transmitted and the actual bet is at the servers here.
“We’ve got to try to convince the state that it’s the same mentality. If it’s illegal to bet sports online, it’s probably illegal to bet racing online, and we know that’s not the case. So we’ll see. Hopefully that happens. It seems clear-cut.”
The News reported that Pegula Sports and Entertainment had a lobbying firm working the state Capitol in March, and were advocating for online sports wagering in venues.
"I don't think that we've been shy about saying that we are for sports gambling in New York State, and especially in-venue," Kim Pegula, the co-owner and president of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, told The News in April.
More to come
Two more commercial casinos are in line to offer sports gambling in the immediate future, including the Resorts World Catskills in Monticello, and closest to Buffalo, the del Lago Resort & Casino in Waterloo, a 90-minute drive east on I-90, between Rochester and Syracuse.
Del Lago plans to open a sportsbook affiliated with DraftKings “later this summer,” though an official opening date has not been set, according to Lance Young, the casino’s executive vice president and general manager.
“Del Lago Resort & Casino submitted the required information to the State Gaming Commission which included details on internal controls, plan of operation and house rules and are working with the commission for approval, which is expected soon,” Young said through a spokesperson in a written statement to The News.
Sportsbooks are also in the works at seven Indian casinos owned by the Senecas, Oneidas and Mohawks.
The Seneca Nation has said it’s preparing to open three sports gambling lounges in Western New York at its casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca.
But it’s unclear when, since the tribe remains locked in a dispute with the Cuomo administration over its decision to stop making annual casino revenue sharing payments to the state.
The first step
Back at Tioga Downs, Lupardo, who co-sponsored the online sports gambling bill in the State Assembly, was trailed by TV cameras as she walked to a betting window and placed a wager.
Gamblers must be at least 21 years old to enter the sportsbook, same as the casino floor, and have multiple ways to scour available wagers.
A wall of paper sheets, divided by sport, lists odds for daily and futures bets, as do three scrolling tickers. Gamblers can also go directly to a cashier or the 14 self-service touchscreen terminals, which mirror the online experience in other states and are ideal for live in-game betting.
Loads of markets are available in every game, from who is going to score first to how many runs will score in a given inning. The lines are always moving.
There is a $5 minimum for bets. The book accepts cash only.
“You could never really bet on the Yankees before,” said Jim Liberati, 65, of Binghamton. “Now, if I want to, the guy was over here earlier showing me how to do it and everything. It’s a plus for the area. It’s a plus for New York. I think it’s all good.”
Gambling on college teams from New York, like Buffalo, St. Bonaventure and Syracuse, is off limits, as is gambling on any college games taking place in the state, regardless of the schools competing, which rules out events at Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center.
New Jersey has a similar law barring gambling on college teams and events in the Garden State, put in place to prevent integrity issues and protect college athletes.
“Honestly, I see this as a first step,” Lupardo said. “We were very close to passing mobile sports betting, and we would have used the four (commercial) casinos as servers to process the bets across the state. Because of an interpretation of the way the constitution was amended, there is a prevailing view that these four casinos are the only places where sports bets can be placed, and at the moment, placed in person. So we want to come back at it …
For now, legal sports wagers in New York must be placed in person.
And options, like the available sportsbooks themselves, are limited.
“We’re going to have about 10 times as many markets as we have now in the near future,” said Jeff Lowich, the senior director of retail operations for FanDuel. “The New York State Gaming Commission is going through all the markets that we’re trying to get approved, and they’re going through and diligently making sure they want to approve each one that we’re asking for.”
Lupardo originally wanted to place her ceremonial first bet on next month’s NASCAR race at Watkins Glen, an hourlong drive from Tioga Downs.
“I was trying to make that point that we have that synergy between our tourism destinations,” Lupardo said.
But betting on NASCAR isn’t an option, yet.
She instead laid $20 on tennis phenom Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old American who stunned Venus Williams at Wimbledon, to win the U.S. Women’s Open. A long shot, to be sure, but like the legal sports gambling industry in New York, a newcomer brimming with promise.