But it’s not just a trend for houses. Have you popped into any of the more popular sportsbooks on and around the Las Vegas Strip lately? Seriously, somebody should look at marketing a TV show for these palatial places.
“Coming up next on HGTV: ‘Sportsbook Fixer Upper,’ taking great Las Vegas spaces and giving them eye-popping, modern-day makeovers. Are we turning these sportsbooks into places you have to see and be? You bet we are.”
Whether it’s older books doing a complete demo, relatively newer books in need of some updating, or brand-new properties unveiling state-of-the-art stuff – or a little bit of all three, as is often the case – sportsbooks in Las Vegas are evolving to meet the needs of a changing customer base. And there’s no better place to start than the famed Superbook at Westgate Las Vegas.
Westgate Las Vegas' rendering of the renovated Superbook.
The Superbook is a huge ode to sports betting, the Taj Mahal of wagering, if you will. The book was first built in 1986, and to a degree, that’s where it’s stayed.
Until right now.
“This is the first major renovation it’s had since then,” said Jay Kornegay, who runs the Superbook as vice president of race and sports for Westgate. “It’s definitely been on our minds since we came over here in 2004 (from the Imperial Palace). We knew it was in much need of a facelift.
“This is much more than that. It’s a whole new body.”
Indeed it is, thanks in no small part to Westgate Resorts CEO David Siegel, whose company bought the former LVH (and before that Las Vegas Hilton) one year ago. Shortly thereafter, Kornegay said Siegel toured the Superbook and made clear his desire that it not only remain the biggest, but also the best book in the industry.
Siegel also wasn’t afraid to get corporate’s fingers in the grease. Mark Waltrip, Westgate’s chief operating officer, has been right in the thick of the remodel.
“When you first walk the space, there’s a lot of magnitude to it,” Waltrip told Covers, as he discussed his initial tour of the monstrous 30,000-square-foot book. “But we felt it was a little disheveled, chopped up and misused. The seating was not comfortable, the TV screens weren’t good or strong.
“But every weekend, the place just packs them in, wall-to-wall. We thought, ‘If we’re getting this many people now, imagine if we gave them this incredible experience.’”
Yet the start of that incredible experience, early this year, didn’t come with the swing of a sledgehammer. In fact, it didn’t even come from within the Superbook.
“The first thing we did is tour other sportsbooks in town, to see where the industry was,” Waltrip said, citing several shops on the Strip, including the Bellagio, the Mirage, Aria and more. “We probably toured a dozen books, just to get an idea of where they were headed. Many of them were more like a sports bar, sports casual club environment. Ours is going to be completely different.”
The concept Waltrip found most appealing: Lagasse’s Stadium, the sportsbook/restaurant/entertainment club housed inside The Palazzo. But after touring that site and several others, it still wasn’t time to start the remodel. It was time to get to know the customer base.
“There are two types of people going into sportsbooks. Obviously, we have serious bettors seeking a very specific technical experience. We also have the other group, looking for a fan experience and to bet sports,” Waltrip said. “We started interviewing our serious, longtime gamers. What kind of seating arrangement did they want? What kind of technology? What kind of chairs and TV sets? Then we did likewise with the casual gamers.
“At the end of the day, we centered in on what we want to create: not only the world’s largest sportsbook, but a stadium experience. So we decided to build the world’s largest high-definition TV. And like a stadium, the book will have the equivalent of 50-yard-line seats, boxes and less expensive seats. All the fans will be sharing the same event, but from a different perspective.”
After all that due diligence, the demo finally began in mid-June, with the plan to finish most of the renovation just before football season kicks off and have all of it wrapped up by the end of September. Kornegay said the first phase will include new screens, counters, carpet, seating areas, VIP suites and a brand new sports bar.
“That Phase 1 is going to be completed before football starts. August 30 is the target date,” he said.
There will ultimately be a 100-foot-long bar, as well. But the centerpiece, as Waltrip alluded to, is guaranteed to be striking: a 4K LED video wall that measures a whopping 240 feet long and 18 feet high. Just how big is that?
“It will make it the largest LED wall in the world,” said Kornegay, while adding that size won’t take away from quality. “It’s sharper than HD.”
Indeed, the massive media monster has a 2.5 million megapixel display – think of the standard 1080p TV sitting in your family room, then multiply it by 2,314 – which is beyond what’s even available in content right now, though Waltrip notes “it’s where the content is headed.”
As with other books, the footprint is going to flip more toward sports betting than horse race wagering.
“It’s the changes of time,” Kornegay said. “Back when the Superbook was built, race bettors were very prominent and required additional space. Now, sports betting represents the majority of our handle. And as we all know, sports betting is growing in popularity by leaps and bounds.
“So it only makes sense to have the sportsbook cater more to the sports fan than it did 30 years ago.”
That said, race bettors will still likely flock to the Superbook. Kornegay said the renovation will bring with it a race section with an upgraded VIP area and 80 seats overall.
“That’s bigger than some entire sportsbooks,” he said, adding that race seating will be state-of-the-art, with TV screens that can provide full-screen, split-screen or quad views. “The race player hasn’t been forgotten at all. They’re going to love the upgrades. This is something they’re going to be very happy with.”
What’s interesting is that the Superbook is already getting good response on its interim setup – despite the huge walls of sheetrock from floor to ceiling, enveloping the betting counters to hide all the work going on behind. That’s a good sign that the big reveal in late August should be smashing.
“Our temporary setup has been tremendous,” Kornegay said. “A lot of regulars are saying, ‘The temporary screens are great, these are perfect.’ And I say, ‘These are just temporary.’ The overall expectations are going to be high, and we can’t wait for it to be completed and share it with the rest of the community.”
CG Technologies has several of its sportsbooks located in relatively newer properties, most notably the Venetian (1999), the Palms (2001), the M (2009) and the Cosmopolitan, which opened in 2010 right in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip and houses arguably the most unique sportsbook in town.
Parikshat Khanna is the pointman for designs and renovations at CG Tech books. Khanna, CG’s vice president of business development, said the company has tried to usher in new ways of thinking about what a sportsbook should offer.
“Historically speaking, the sportsbook business on the whole has been more of an amenity. It wasn’t given as much input as the casino floor itself,” Khanna said. “CG’s whole thought process was to make this our niche and provide the latest and greatest that technology has to offer.”
The Venetian is CG Technology's biggest sportsbook at 10,000 square feet.
Khanna has helped open seven of the company’s books since he came on board in 2010, most at already existing hotels. The Venetian sportsbook, which CG rebuilt after taking over in 2011, is the company’s largest, with a footprint of 10,000 square feet. The book features a monster 10-foot-by-100-foot 4mm black chip LED viewing wall and high-definition DLP projectors for the adjoining race screen.
The book also has 118 seats loaded with technology – each is equipped with individual flat touch screens that go to the next level.
“Typically, what we envision is a wagering-conducive environment where you can watch a game, change the channel, have multiple playing options – playing video poker or blackjack,” Khanna said. “Our touch screens have four boxes available, for TV, a mobile casino, data to see the lines at different books so that bettors can compare, and the fourth is used to place wagers.”
That wagering option is getting an upgrade, too, so it’s not available right now. Still, it’s an intriguing setup, to be sure, and one that Khanna noted is available in all of CG’s shops.
“With the whole look and feel, the customer is not only enjoying games, but has access to making other forms of wagers. It’s an atmosphere inclined to making wagers,” Khanna said.
CG Technology had a similarly sized space to work with when it took over the Palms sportsbook in 2012. It measured 9,000 square feet.
“When we looked at it, all we could say was, ‘What an opportunity,’” Khanna said. “The sheer space and location, huge square footage. We saw the ceiling heights and how it draws in from the casino floor. But at the time, it wasn’t something that would draw your attention. We had a completely different vision. What we wanted was to make it a destination.”
But first, that required making it no destination. CG Tech shut down the book entirely early in the spring of 2012, instead opening a betting kiosk and mini lounge on the other side of the casino – a 250-square-foot space that is still open today. Then it required what Khanna termed a “substantial capital investment,” most notably with regard to the viewing experience. CG again went with 4mm black-chip TV screens, the best available at the time, to provide a viewing wall of more than 1,200 square feet.
“It’s a big up-front investment, but when you see the results, and you see how nice these screens are, the draw is fantastic,” Khanna said. “It’s extremely bright, even though we’re only operating the screens at 50 percent brightness right now.”
Indeed, the curved wall can display more than 40 events simultaneously and provides an awesome viewing experience, even from beyond the back perimeter of the book.
“We did the construction in record time – 65 days between demo and finish. We won a friendly bet with the then-CEO of the Palms,” Khanna said. “The book opened on Kentucky Derby day.”
And while the video wall is the centerpiece, as with the Venetian, personal experience wasn’t overlooked. There are nearly 120 seats (93 in the book proper, plus a VIP lounge) loaded with the four-box touch-screen technology.
The Cosmo, on the other hand, represented a chance to go in a different direction in a brand new hotel at the sparkling CityCenter – with some challenges thrown in for good measure.
“We were constrained with the footprint of the space,” Khanna said. “At that time, the Cosmopolitan was not interested in having a sportsbook on the casino floor. The only thing we could get is the space we are currently in.”
That space is on the second floor, amid an area with shopping and restaurants. And as megaresort sportsbooks go, it’s a small space at 2,200 square feet, so it required a very different way of thinking – a challenge CG relished. The book only has 43 total seats, but with a much lower ceiling than most sportsbooks – though not too low, by any means – it has phenomenal sightlines. The large-screen displays are very clear and the TV monitors at the seats are quite nice, as well.
“We tried to accommodate as many seats as we could without getting cluttered,” Khanna said of the modest book. “It turned out to be fantastic.”
Indeed, although it’s well removed from the casino, it does enjoy the advantage of being on the way to the popular Marquis Dayclub Pool and trendy Marquis Nightclub.
“They have to look at the book while they’re on their way there,” Khanna said, noting the payoff has been outstanding. “The book gets a tremendous amount of foot traffic. It’s one of our better performing books.”
The sportsbook at The Cosmopolitan has just 43 total seats.
Although Khanna is pleased with what CG Technology did in limited space at the Cosmo, and he revels in the size and scope of both the Venetian and the Palms, he doesn’t give deference to any of those books over the rest of CG’s shops.
“Without sounding too dramatic, it’s like picking a favorite child. We take special pride in every facility we open,” he said. “The Venetian and the Palms have the biggest square footage, the biggest books, and from a tech perspective, they leave no stone unturned. But if you go into any of our facilities, they all stand out, even the smallest one. People will go specifically to those books.
“The Venetian and the Palms have more pop, but even if you go to the M, the Hard Rock (built in 2011), the Silverton, Tropicana, it’s fantastic.”
For sheer number of sportsbooks, MGM dominates the Las Vegas scene, with operations of all shapes and sizes, from one end of the Strip to the other. Jay Rood, vice president of race and sports for MGM-Mirage, has his fingerprints on all those shops, but he does business from the Mirage sportsbook, which was the talk of the town after its complete makeover was completed in 2013.
To be sure, it was a flip-the-script scenario that was long overdue, recognizing the massive growth in sports betting and a drawing down of horse race wagers.
“What was driving the change was that our demographic changed over the last 10 years,” Rood said. “Horse racing had taken a back seat. Our book had been set up 70-30 to accommodate the race crowd. We decided we needed to flip the room and create a high-end, smaller horse area.”
But as Rood’s peers at the Superbook and CG’s properties recognized, it was going to take more than that to catch up to the times. The serious sports bettors and the casual fans have much higher expectations of what the sportsbook experience should encompass these days, something Rood was very cognizant of.
“When you say you’re going to change the footprint, there are a lot of parts with that,” he said. “We needed to change how we presented viewing sports – putting in large projectors, cinema-style, to provide a viewing experience that would get people into the room and hopefully get them up to the betting window.”
Indeed, three projectors create a viewing screen that measures a hefty 90 feet wide by 19 feet high. The screen can be chopped up into as many as 12 events at once. With a screen that big, you might think Rood would want chop it up even more, but that would dampen the viewing experience.
“We don’t want to get too small. We want people in the back of the room to be able to see,” he said.
Which naturally leads to where they see the games from. Everything was upgraded. VIP and premium viewing areas were created, “for the customer who wants to pay to have a premium experience,” Rood said. And there is no shortage of such customers, particularly during football season.
“We’re constantly looking at stuff like that, sort of evolving as we continue to figure out what works best,” Rood said. “We did the viewing wall, then figured out what to do with couch/pod seating for groups between six and 10 people. That made sense because of how things are evolving in Las Vegas. Nobody travels in twos or fours anymore. Everybody kind of wants to have an area that makes them feel like VIPs.”
The results proved Rood correct. The remodeled book opened for March Madness 2013, and business boomed.
“As soon as we made the change at the Mirage, visitors and viewers went way up, and ticket count, beverage sales and the average ticket jumped quite a bit,” Rood said. “It had a real impact, putting capital into projectors, providing customers with what they wanted.”
This past spring, Rood and crew moved a couple blocks south on the Strip to the Bellagio. It wasn’t a makeover of Mirage proportions, but it did address some specific concerns, and the efforts definitely made for a much more entertaining and comfortable experience – be it in the book or the adjacent sports bar. Both were jam-packed during the first weekend of this year’s March Madness.
“We made changes with respect to the seating arrangement. It’s kind of what the customer was asking for,” Rood said, specifically noting some unique, coffee table-sized additions. “We added interactive tables that have the ability to show up to four games at once or access websites for play on MGM social websites. You can check your fantasy scores, too.
“We’re going after business that makes more sense – a broader market for the long term makes sense for us. Mandalay Bay needs the same sort of philosophy applied toward it, and it’ll take off.”
Indeed, Rood said Mandalay Bay will hopefully get that treatment next spring or summer, with a completion date ahead of the 2016 football season.
Arguably the most intriguing sportsbook in the MGM-Mirage portfolio is its newest one, at Aria, which opened in late 2009. Not only does it have an incredibly modern, sleek look and feel inside, but along the entryway to the book lies the perfectly placed Five50 Pizza Bar.
“That was originally a little pub that wasn’t as integrated to the book. That was something we had to adjust after opening,” Rood said. “They really lend themselves to each other – a sportsbook pizza parlor. With the food element, they’re working off each other beautifully.”
As for the book itself, it could easily double as a trendy Vegas nightclub, and no one would be the wiser. But it’s far better for its primary purpose of being an incredibly unique space to take in the big game.
“That was designed to be a loungy, cool vibe, with a late-night crossover effect – a sportsbook to be utilized at different hours of the day,” Rood said. “But when sports is the focus, you can see from every point.”
The book features two 9-foot-by-16-foot screens, but by no means do you have to be looking at either one in order to get a good vantage point. In fact, there are ostensibly views from 360 degrees of the 10,000-square-foot space, with 75 monitors throughout the book.
“It’s a pretty intentional design, utilizing maximum space so that everybody doesn’t have to look in the same direction. It’s a pretty cool lounge effect,” Rood said. “It’s one of our more popular, highest-producing books. The design gives way to good handle and strong profitability.”
Rood added that horse players are hardly left out, getting their own room within the book. “It’s a high-quality spot with some great screens.”
The makeover movement has definitely been a boon for the books, and CG’s Khanna believes his company deserves some credit for bringing it about.
“Spending money on technology and on TV screens, I would say we were probably the first ones to do that,” he said. “We take it as a compliment that other properties are refurbishing their locations.”
And while all these sportsbook operators have gone somewhat different directions with their remodels, they all have the same end goal: getting more customers to make more bets.
“Absolutely, that’s always the challenge,” Rood said. “Everyone’s saying the gaming market (nationwide) is saturated. So we think, ‘What is it that we can do to drive people from their local casinos to Vegas.’ It’s all about the experience – gambling, food and entertainment, and great hotels.”
Said Jason Simbal, CG’s vice president of risk management: “Our business model is sports. All our customers are in the books because they want to bet sports. We want to create a location that’s conducive to as many bets as possible.”
And those bets don’t need to be massive, by any means, nor does a patron have to stick around for the day.
“I wouldn’t say our way is the best, but we are happy with the results, and we are constantly seeking ways to make our patrons’ experience better,” Khanna said.
The Superbook has never had a problem attracting players, but there’s no doubt Kornegay and Waltrip would like to get more customers through the door and boost that handle even further. They expect the makeover, along with other renovations hotel-wide, to do just that.
“In one word, absolutely,” Kornegay said. “We certainly expect to attract new players, not just because of what we’re doing in the race and sportsbook, but other upgrades – rooms, suites, the spa, pool, even the convention area is being upgraded. David Siegel promised to touch every inch of this property and make it better. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
One look at the numbers from the state’s Gaming Control Board shows that the differing approaches are all working. In 2011, the total handle for Nevada books was just under $2.9 billion. In three years, it’s jumped by a whopping $1 billion, to just over $3.9 billion in 2014.
With the Superbook’s big reveal just around the corner, don’t be surprised if the state eclipses the $4 billion barrier this year. It certainly won’t surprise Waltrip, who fully expects his shop to be all the rage.
“This is a game-changer for our property and a game-changer for the industry,” Waltrip said. “We’re going to set a very high bar for what a sportsbook should look and feel like.
“I think people are going to be blown away. It will further solidify the Superbook’s place as the premier sportsbook in the world. It’ll be like going to the Super Bowl every weekend.”
Kornegay summarized: “If you want to see the world’s largest race and sportsbook, and technologically the most advanced sportsbook in Nevada, you’re going to want to be at the Las Vegas Superbook. It’s going to be a landmark.”
Indeed, you can almost hear the promo commercial.
“Are you ready for the super look of the Superbook? Then check out the latest ‘Sportsbook Fixer Upper,’ next on HGTV.”
Colin Kelly is a Las Vegas-based contributor for Covers. Follow him on Twitter: @ColinPKelly29.