How the Deep South's Casinos Survived the First College Football Saturday With Legal Sports Betting

Gambling is in Biloxi's blood. But legal gambling? The year's first college football Saturday shows that the adjustment period is still ongoing.
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BILOXI, Miss. — At the Imperial Palace Casino’s new sports book, each sport has its own betting sheet, and the sheets, stacked neatly in baskets for prospective bettors with corresponding labels: NFL, college football, MLB, golf, tennis, NASCAR.

One basket is different. It is labeled not by sport but by conference, the three letters recognizable to anyone ’round here, as they might say: S-E-C. “They don’t have these in Vegas,” says George Cole, the Imperial Palace’s sports book director. “SEC football—it’s where the action is here.”

Welcome to legalized sports betting in the Deep South, where gambling on sports has been an illegal tradition stretching back, at least in Biloxi, nearly a century. It has emerged from the shadows, playing out in smoky, dimly lit gambling meccas, with marble countertops and colorful carpeting, where betting sheets share tabletops with fancy cocktails and fried food platters. Among the clapping of casino chips and shuffling of poker cards, there’s a new sound floating through these windowless, cavernous money-makers, and it’s coming from the sports book.

At the Beau Rivage—owners of the biggest, most luxurious sports book in this coastal city—the celebratory cheers began Saturday at 11:04 a.m. CT, when Ole Miss, two plays into its game against Texas Tech, took a 7–0 lead. What a fitting way to kick off the first full Saturday of college football here, a football-crazed place where fans converged from every corner of the Southeast to legally plop down cash on their favorite teams. “This is SEC country,” says Danny Sheridan, a longtime sports betting analyst who lives in Mobile, Ala. “They’re going to bet it like there’s no tomorrow.”

To address local bettors' overwhelming interest in SEC football, the Imperial Palace Casino created a betting sheet for games involving conference members. 

To address local bettors' overwhelming interest in SEC football, the Imperial Palace Casino created a betting sheet for games involving conference members. 

Mississippi quickly acted on the Supreme Court’s ruling this summer the gave states other than Nevada permission to allow sports betting, following Delaware and New Jersey in opening up betting windows to locals and those from surrounding states. After all, Mississippi is the only state from the Southeast where this is legal for now. “They’re pouring in from Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and Alabama,” says Bobby Mahoney, a lifelong Biloxi resident, restaurant owner and dignitary who placed one of the first-ever legal bets in this state during the grand opening of the Beau Rivage sports book on Aug. 1, wagering that golfer Justin Thomas would win the PGA championship. Thomas finished six shots back of winner Brooks Koepka, and in Mahoney grumbles in his retelling. Such is life.

But the majority of wagers here aren’t placed on golf. No matter what ESPN contends with its commercial slogan, college football lives here. So much so that sports book managers in this state expect Saturdays, and not Sundays, to generate the most action this fall.

On the first of those busy Saturdays, the Beau Rivage and its seven ticket windows experienced a rush just before kickoff of the day’s first games, as more than 100 people formed a line snaking some 200 feet to the nearby craps tables. This practice—bettors deciding to wager seconds before the start of a game—is called “balking,” and Will Hall, the Beau’s sports book director, had anticipated it after seeing it in Las Vegas for years. During the mayhem, like a true pro, Hall hurriedly created an eighth ticket window for those wagering $500 or more—a casino isn’t allowing the big bets to be spoiled by kickoff.

Minutes later, Hall produces a figure from the four-hour morning madness leading up to 11 a.m., the total bets made during the biggest wave of legal wagering this state’s ever seen: 1,670 bets, or about 425 an hour. That number hit 3,000 by 3 p.m., and climbed to 5,598 by close at 1 a.m. on Sunday.

“This is a start to football season the likes of what we have never seen before,” says Jay Rood, the vice president of race and sports for Vegas-based MGM, the parent company of the Beau Rivage. “SEC schools draw action.”

Maybe that’s why the new sport book directors in Biloxi have turned into quasi-celebrities. Cole found that out last week when his haircut appointment turned into a private lesson about sports gambling for the barber, who had recognized Cole from a television interview he gave days before. “In Vegas,” Cole says, “no one knows me from a hole in the ground.”

Here, he’s one of this town’s new sports book managers, grizzled gambling veterans—many of them cut from the Las Vegas cloth—who were hired by Biloxi casinos to help expedite the creation of sports books in time for football season’s arrival. Cole at the Imperial Palace, Hall at the Beau Rivage and Brad Bryant at the Golden Nugget were rushed here in late June or July to hire a staff of 10-20, train them in the art of sports betting and direct the daily action, fixing problems and smoothing out kinks. These men uprooted their lives to start anew in a 45,000-person town situated on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a place known for fresh seafood, water excursions and, long before its first waterfront casino opened in 1992, gambling.

The relocations came at a price. Cole, for instance, left his wife Maggie and 15-year-old son George IV in Vegas, and he’s been living for the last six weeks in a hotel room at the Imperial Palace. Hall, 57, dropped his job as a Kentucky thoroughbred trainer and breeder, returning to a world that he left 15 years ago. Bryant, a 49-year-old Texas native, relocated from Arizona, where he ran a dog track, and like Hall, he’s reigniting a casino career after a years-long sabbatical.

These men oversaw hastened renovations as casinos scrambled to open sports books in time for this weekend. The Beau Rivage turned a nightclub into a 245-seat book with more than two dozen televisions, including a theater-sized projection in a location that once served as a stage for performers. A one-time dance floor is now a VIP section with nine three-seater leather couches, and there’s even more fancy furniture on the way, says Brandon Dardeau, the Beau’s vice president of marketing. “It didn’t show up in time, so we ran out and bought these,” he points to the couches. “We wanted to get open and be the first. You always want to be the first. And we were.”

Others followed: the Imperial Palace two days later, Hard Rock on Aug. 17 and the Golden Nugget as recently as Aug. 24. The Golden Nugget turned a second-floor video poker bar into a five-window ticketing counter and converted a restaurant lounge into a TV-filled bar. The Imperial Palace used an unoccupied corner of a sports bar for its five-window counter, and the Hard Rock found a nook toward the back of the casino floor, situating a three-window counter against a far wall and mounting monitors above it, with the area encircled by noisy slot machines. “This isn’t the final product,” says Russell Schenk, the casino’s sports book manager.

Most of these sports books are temporary structures, and that includes the Beau Rivage’s comparatively lavish setup. The casino plans to begin construction on a multi-million dollar sports book after the Super Bowl. “They told me $7 million,” says Sheridan, who placed one of the first bets at the Beau Rivage last month. “I told them, ‘If you’re going to spend $7 million on a sports book, it will be the best sports book in the world.’”

Sports book director Will Hall stands in front of the Beau Rivage’s sports book counter a day before a busy Saturday leaves him scrambling.

Sports book director Will Hall stands in front of the Beau Rivage’s sports book counter a day before a busy Saturday leaves him scrambling.

Seven of Biloxi’s eight casinos have opened a sports book, and they are the talk of the town. Signage along the Gulf Coast welcomes you to a place that is giddy about being able to offer legal betting on sports. And why shouldn’t it be? “Alabama and Mississippi, per capita, are the largest illegal betting states in the nation,” Sheridan says.

Before Saturday, the most popular bets in this state were future wagers on SEC football—the conference champion, for instance, or season win totals for the likes of LSU, Alabama or Auburn. Don’t be surprised. Seven SEC campuses are less than a five-hour drive from at least one of Mississippi’s 30-plus casinos, sprinkled among five cities along the Mississippi River and a dozen more on the Coast. The second-most popular bets in Biloxi were future wagers on the New Orleans Saints, the closest NFL team to the area. There were so many of those that one sports director says, “Saints get knocked out of the playoffs, it’s going to be a good day around here.”

“In Vegas, you got people betting on winning teams: the Patriots, Alabama, the Warriors,” says Bryant, the Golden Nugget book director originally from Texas. “Here you got LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn. Local flavor. Vegas, you don’t really have local flavor.”

They’re coming from far and wide, too. At his restaurant earlier this week, Mahoney poured drinks for a Florida man making his first gambling trip to Biloxi since Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city in 2005. Why? The sports book. Three East Coast residents, on their drive to Las Vegas for football-betting, popped into the Beau Rivage sports book this week. “They ended up just staying here,” says a smiling Hall.

There are folks like 59-year-old Rodney Terrette and his two brothers, who took a 50-minute flight here from their Atlanta home. Rodney is a Georgia and Georgia Tech fan, and he wasn’t about to miss college football’s opening day. “This is my release!” says Terrette. Other bettors aren’t even here in person. Kara Reese, the Golden Nugget’s special events coordinator who hails from a family of Badgers fans in Wisconsin, got a call from her dad earlier this week with a message. Place a bet on the Badgers for me.

How to place a bet has been tricky to grasp for these locals, many of them accustomed to ringing their bookies. “They’re walking up to the window saying, ‘Give me Tulane or LSU or the Bulldogs,’” Hall says. Teams are designated with a particular number, and these are easily found on betting sheets and digital monitors. The appropriate way to bet is not hard: I’d like $25 on No. 193, which in Saturday’s case would have been Washington, +1.5, against Auburn.

Then there’s the payment. Local bookies run on credit, but at a casino, bets must be paid in cash at the time of the wager. Hall explained this recently to a man who’d spent the last 40 years betting illegally with a local bookie. “He didn’t understand,” Hall says. The novices are plentiful. A headline in Friday’s edition of The Sun Herald, the local newspaper, reads, “How To Place A Bet,” followed by a step-by-step guide and an explanation of betting terminology. Each sports book offers pamphlets on betting, too.

This is all new to these people—after all, they just want to put 20 bucks on the damn Tigers, Bears, Bulldogs or whoever. They’ve been doing it for years illegally. Biloxi is certainly a part of the $7 billion-plus illegal sports gambling market in America. This city shares more cultural similarities with New Orleans than its Mississippi brethren. Biloxi housed some of the most notorious gambling parlors in the state dating back to the 1940s. There was The 406 Club, K-9, Sportsman’s Lounge, The Magnolia Room and Fisherman’s Hangout, and guys known as Rattler, Pony and Horse operated them.

“We’ve been doing this for a while,” says the 72-year-old Mahoney, owner of this town’s most iconic restaurant, Mary Mahoney’s Old French House. “I remember being a kid and my mother handing me parlay sheets. ‘Go pick some football teams, son.’”

A dozen televisions grace what used to be a nightclub stage. The Beau Rivage, in the span of six weeks, converted it into a sports book.

A dozen televisions grace what used to be a nightclub stage. The Beau Rivage, in the span of six weeks, converted it into a sports book.

Locals estimate dozens of illegal bookies still exist on the Coast, and sports book directors don’t necessarily expect them to go away. In fact, some believe the legalization could help the illegal activity. For instance, bookies may take bigger bets from their customers because they now can place the opposite bet—that’s called hedging—with a legal sports book. Sports books offer more variety, though, from the kind of wager, like a whopping 15-team parlay, to the type of sport, like Canadian football.

But casino executives realize a truth: the sports book is not one of their best revenue streams. Slots and table games are the money-makers. Hall estimates the house takes in an average of $3 for every $100 bet at a sports book, but that number can greatly fluctuate. It’s not necessarily about turning a profit at the sports book alone, says Chett Harrison, the general manger of the Golden Nugget. “They come here and they eat and they drink and they might play a table game,” Harrison says. “We set ours up like a Buffalo Wild Wings.”

The Golden Nugget claims to be the only casino on the Coast to offer betting kiosks. Five of them are set up in front of the ticket counter, and a sixth is near the poker room. Soon, casinos here will develop smartphone applications, allowing bettors to place wagers with a few taps of their finger with one caveat: They must be on casino property.

For now, the sports book will have to do. And that’s O.K. at the Hard Rock, where Schenk says they’ve seen a 15% uptick in foot traffic since opening their book. Next door at the Beau Rivage, the second set of college games is winding down, and it’s still packed, with nearly every seat occupied and a standing-room crowd encircling the venue, each craning their necks to see one of the eight games on the 24 televisions, many of them in college football apparel—a camouflage LSU hat, an Ole Miss wind-breaker, a Michigan T-shirt, a Texas visor. They were all here for a historic day: to, legally, bet on this region’s religion.

“The South,” says Schenk, “they love their SEC, love their college football.”