Nobody ever said operating a brick-and-mortar casino was a bad way to build big business—once the doors are open and the action starts flowing, expansion and development are just about inevitable, barring nearly anything other than a bona fide pandemic.
That being said, it’s never been the easiest business to maintain, because operators’ lists of obligations and competition seem to grow almost daily, and these days, if companies want to offer a comprehensive player experience, that needs to include a bright, well-stocked and state-of-the-art sportsbook (local regulations permitting, of course).
In an industry with many trends, the revival and revolution of retail sportsbooks is perhaps chief among them. They have become places to congregate, cheer, eat, drink and hang out, which certainly wasn’t the case even 10 years ago. The landmark Supreme Court decision in May 2018 to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 created an unprecedented opportunity for both tribal and commercial operators across the country to take the old mold of the sportsbook and completely rethink it, and sports fans everywhere have been rejoicing ever since.
But in order to make them come, you have to build it first, which takes oodles of planning, compliance and vision. On the surface, it seems simple to set up a few chairs and plug in a few flatscreens, but at their core, casinos are about entertainment, and sportsbooks are no different. Casino patrons are often rigidly categorized by their game of choice, so it should come as no surprise that sports bettors aren’t necessarily looking for the same things as slot lovers and baccarat enthusiasts; they want to feel the energy of the game, and designers need to replicate the sports bar experience on a grander scale to convince fans to leave their La-Z-Boy and NFL Sunday Ticket or NBA League Pass behind.
Operators have never been more eager to build eye-catching sportsbooks, and in most cases, they’ve never had such blank checks and blank canvases to do so—it’s just a matter of finding the right people to bring these visions to life.
Don’t Bring Your Own Beer
Nowadays, casino architects are essentially the world’s best Tetris players, in the sense that they are tasked with maximizing a given space in order to squeeze out as much profit as possible over an extended period of time. Everything must be multi-use and versatile, and when talking about sportsbooks that means one thing above all: the utilization and implementation of food and beverage options.
Brett Ewing, principal at Cuningham and executive director of its Play studio, has decades of experience helping operators solve the ever-evolving puzzle of making sportsbooks fashionable. For him, they’ve become much more than just “rows of seats and screens”—at this point, “it’s almost turned into theater with the video and the different technical opportunities.” And after all, what is a theater without the proper accouterments? What Ewing and others have found is that sportsbooks work better when they are essentially turned into sports bars that also accept wagers.
“If it’s a well-designed restaurant food and beverage space, I think you can use it for other events, like get-togethers and parties whether it’s somebody’s anniversary or birthday, things like that,” Ewing says. When you really get down to it, some casino-goers really just want a nice space to hang out, and a sportsbook is often a markedly different environment than other areas of a casino floor, often built with a more down-home, wholesome brand of comfort than can be found elsewhere.
“The gathering aspect of it, congregating—I like to use the word congregate—people like to congregate and get together and have fun,” says Ewing. “So it’s a whole different level now, and food and beverage is a huge piece of it.”
When compared to other forms of gaming, sports betting has much higher levels of volatility and much lower margins, which is why it makes sense to tether it to other revenue drivers that are more consistent. It’s easier to stomach a tough loss with burgers, beer and guac, and that’s true for both bettors and operators. There’s also a certain communal sense of being in a sportsbook, similar to a busy craps table but magnified about a dozen times.
HBG Design is one of the leading casino architecture firms in the country, with a portfolio of projects that spans from New York to Arizona. Practice Leader Nathan Peak understands the importance of getting the atmosphere right, because “betting is often more fun and more appealing to a much broader customer base if it’s a social and communal experience,” he says.
“Most often, we find that clients are looking for a way to incorporate the sportsbook into an already-active area of the casino, sometimes to create synergy with an existing adjacent amenity,” says Peak.
“This helps build energy into the sports gaming experience and infuse activity into nearby amenities. Rather than locate a vital revenue-generating amenity like the sportsbook in the smoky shadows of the property, we want to make it highly visible. Several of our recent sportsbook concepts integrate sports betting into the center bar or into existing restaurants or into multi-use venues… Think, camaraderie with your friends, big TV screens, multiple games on at once, comfortable chairs, tables and bar seating with great food and bar service.”
The possibilities have become so vast so quickly that it’s hard for everyone, including the architects, to keep up. For 40 years, retail sportsbooks existed solely in Nevada, and now the sector seems to be expanding monthly, if not weekly. According to the American Gaming Association, brick-and-mortar sportsbooks are live in 28 states, and an additional seven have passed legislation but have yet to launch.
Indeed, we’ve reached the point where Iowa, Colorado and Arizona feature more sportsbook options than New Jersey, per Sports Handle. Because of this, firms and operators must tailor their designs to fit the local market as best as possible—Ewing notes that with sportsbooks specifically, an easy way to accomplish this is to tap into local teams and franchises. Cuningham has worked with tribal operators in the Seattle area, and “it’s all about the Seahawks up there for the most part in that region, so you can have these ‘home teams.’ The regional aspect of it, I think is very different today too, since it’s pretty much gone everywhere.”
Regardless of where the sportsbook is located, collaboration is crucial, especially in the initial stages of planning and design. For Peak and HBG, the two biggest challenges when starting a new project are understanding the “client’s needs from an operational standpoint” as well as “what their customers desire.” National firms may not be in touch with some of the smaller markets, but “clients understand their customers and markets better than anyone else,” so it’s often best to start at the source to sculpt a blank canvas into a functional, money-making space.
Big Screens Equate to Big Profits
It’s nice to think about all the extra features you can add to a sportsbook, but they don’t mean much if the technology isn’t top-notch. In 2022, nearly every residence features a high-definition TV, so companies are tasked with going above and beyond to provide the ultimate viewing experience.
Christopher Urhahn, senior project manager at TBE Architects, notes that “today’s sportsbooks are very lively,” not just because of the energetic fans but also because “there’s a lot of technology, they’re bright, because of all the different TV screens and monitors.” The appeal of actually watching the game is still foremost in sportsbook design, and in that way it truly has become similar to theater in a lot of ways, much like Ewing alluded to. This also creates somewhat of a dilemma with regards to space, because as Urhahn notes, “you need room to sit back and be able to view and take it all in,” and we all know the sinking feeling of walking into a crowded theater with only front-row seating available.
For TBE and others, the design process now starts with the technology first, then moves outward.
“The technology is really driving the space; it’s not ‘let’s design a space and put technology into it,’” Urhahn says. “It’s about ‘what’s the technology, what are we trying to achieve with that?’ And then we design space along the technology, which a lot of times when spaces are designed is kind of counter, but really the sportsbooks are about the technology and then the design comes based on (that).”
Aside from challenges with the space itself, bookmakers must also wrestle with the reality that sports are inherently cyclical, and every night is not going to be a blockbuster. Urhahn notes that sometimes designers have had to come up with ideas to “utilize the space as overflow,” especially in situations where there’s “a stage or concert venue” in the immediate vicinity. Thankfully, however, sports have become such a constant, 24/7 industry that there’s almost always something that operators can throw on the screen, even if it’s low-profile or international. Soccer, rugby, MMA fighting and other events are constantly taking place overseas, usually during the mornings and early afternoons, which are typically considered to be down times for books here in the U.S.
“There is always some type of sporting or competitive event happening, which provides continuous opportunities to promote and hold special event nights in the sportsbook, particularly on off nights,” says Peak. And, if worst really does come to worst, operators can always put on sports TV outlets such as ESPN and Fox Sports, in the hopes of convincing stray hotel guests or passersby to stop and watch highlights or talk shows by the bar.
The Power of Branding
One of the newest and fastest-growing trends in sportsbook design has been the proliferation of partnerships between operators and new-school bookmakers such as FanDuel, DraftKings and Barstool Sports. These crossovers are good for bringing customer bases together, without having to do much other than simple branding. Often, these brands bring years of experience and customer loyalty to the table, and all designers have to do is make sure that everything comes together nicely.
“We did the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma for the Puyallup Tribe,” says Ewing. “And they brought in MGM as their partner. So with the graphics and some of the signings, that’s very key… There’s some of those branding elements from that partner that have to be addressed. But I don’t think as much, so much they’re going to influence the layout, more of the content that’s put into the space and where it goes.”
Some brands, such as Barstool, have a following that goes beyond sports and into pop culture, and that additional bit of influence means a lot to regional operators who might not be able to create the same excitement otherwise. This even applies to international bookmakers as well, who are increasingly searching for new opportunities within the expanding U.S. market as a way to increase traffic around the world.
TBE is close to opening a new facility that is a collaboration between a tribal casino and U.K.-based bookmaker Betfred, according to Urhahn. He asserts that the partnership will ultimately “offer a better product to the guest” because well-known bookmakers are often able to “provide the odds and things that maybe your regular casino doesn’t have the ability to do.” In today’s market, bettors want more, faster, and in most cases, the operators and firms who can keep up with those demands will win out.
By now, the level of competition to build the biggest and brightest sportsbooks has nearly reached that of the sports they broadcast.
It’s a heavyweight fight for certain, and operators and architects are working harder than ever to increase their arsenals—you want food and drinks? Say no more. You want wall-to-wall, movie-quality screens with all the big games? Coming right up. You want a book that’s partnered with your mobile app of choice, with all the latest parlays, props and in-game lines? Step right in.
And if you want more on top of that, you certainly won’t have to wait long, because in this industry, profit always breeds innovation.