'Roll Tide': A successful CFB season for Mississippi sports betting

David Purdum

BILOXI, Miss. -- This year's national championship game between Clemson and Alabama was winding down on the dozens of TVs scattered throughout the new hybrid sportsbook/bar at Beau Rivage, a high-end casino resort on the Gulf Coast.

It was late, closing in on 11 p.m., on a Monday night. The crowd had thinned, but it was still busy and noisy. A few VIPs, wearing slick suits with open collars, were sitting in their leather lounge chairs in the reserved area, sunken in the middle of the bar in front of the biggest TVs. There were bars at each corner, with typical restaurant seating, including booths throughout most of the venue.

At this point, the resilient cheers from Alabama fans that lasted into the fourth quarter were mostly gone, replaced by emboldened Clemson supporters that wouldn't dare leave. This was their time.

The Tiger fans may have started the game as the underdogs, but they were the big dogs in the bar now -- and they were woofing.

A hushed, sarcastic "S-E-C, S-E-C" chant could be heard coming from an orange-heavy section of a corner bar as the Tigers were pouring it on. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide faithful were left shouting pointed questions about their team's performance. After Alabama turned it over on downs for the second time in the fourth quarter, a disgusted Tide fan took off his baseball hat, ran his hand over his face and shouted, "What the (expletive) are we doing?"

The scene likely was similar to sports bars in any college football hotbed in the southeast -- but not exactly.

This was the first college football season with legal bookmakers operating deep in SEC country, and it was ending with Alabama suffering its worst loss of the Nick Saban era.

Biloxi is a smooth hour's drive west from Mobile, Alabama. The gas stations along the way, well into Mississippi, have entire sections dedicated to Crimson Tide merchandise, everything from hats and sunglasses to Mardi Gras beads featuring Big Al.

Tide fans from all over southwest Alabama know the route well. Saturday after Saturday this season, they showed up at the casinos to watch the Tide on the casinos' upgraded TVs, courtesy of the new legal bookmakers operating in the corner at places like Contact, a popular everyman's watering hole and restaurant located inside Palace Casino Resort.

Thirty minutes before kickoff of the championship game, nearly every seat was taken at Contact. If there were Clemson fans in the house, they hid it well.

"Crowd was bigger for LSU-Alabama," said Rod James, a local casino worker and Alabama fan. "At least until all the LSU fans left."

The Crimson Tide fans were all smiles before kickoff, laughing, drinking draft beer and munching on things like loaded waffle fries with sides of chili. There was an air of confidence. After all, the lit-up oddsboard hanging above the new betting counter installed over the summer showed Alabama clearly as the favorite.

There were no lines to bet in the hour leading up to kickoff. A few customers scoured over parlay sheets before making their way up to the betting counter, placing their wagers and quickly returning to their seats.

Overall, there were many more serious fans than serious sports bettors at Contact for the national title game, including Randy and Jonie Jones, a married couple who have been driving over from Orange Beach to watch the Tide for years.

Randy, tall, slender with a long, gray beard, said nothing really stood out to him about the first season with the sportsbook open in his regular spot.

"Maybe the crowds have been a little larger," he said. "It was packed in here for Oklahoma-Alabama."

Neither of the Joneses was willing to put a few bucks on the Tide against Clemson. Jonie, in her Alabama sweatshirt was just happy with her seat, along the center bar that stretched across the middle of the restaurant and facing the wall of TVs.

"I admit it," Jonie said, glancing at her husband with a smile. "I'm in love with Nick Saban. Everybody is."

SEC football unquestionably is the driver of Mississippi sports betting. Everyone -- bookmakers and bettors -- talks about the crowds at the Biloxi books for the Nov. 3 Alabama-LSU game. Beau Rivage sportsbook manager Will Hall said it was "wall-to-wall" people that Saturday and a near 50-50 split of Crimson Tide and Tigers fans. Alabama won 29-0, easily covering the 14.5-point spread.

"It was real exciting for about 20 minutes," said Brandon Dardeau, vice president of marketing for Beau Rivage and an avid LSU fan.

Hall is one of a handful of Biloxi sportsbook executives with Las Vegas experience. He opened several books in the 1990s at Las Vegas casinos, before getting into horse racing around the turn of the century. He returned to the bookmaking business last year to help open the Rivage sportsbook and quickly noticed a difference in his clientele.

"Compared to when I got out of this business, players have so much more access to information now," Hall said. "It's impressive how really sharp they are."

Rob Portwood, sportsbook manager for Harrah's Gulf Coast, who also has Las Vegas bookmaking experience, said one of the first things that surprised him in Biloxi was how many "professionals" there were. And former Las Vegas bookmaker Nico Sfanos, who is now running the sportsbook at the Scarlet Pearl, a casino resort across a highway bridge, no more than five minutes from Beau Rivage, noticed the same thing.

"There are a lot of them down here. We just had a little old lady bet $5,000 on Alabama," Sfanos said with a chuckle, before Monday's championship game.

Back at the Beau Rivage sportsbook, as the final seconds ticked away on Clemson's blowout 44-16 win, the first college football season with legal bookmaking in SEC land was coming to an end.

Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal statute that had restricted state-authorized sports betting to primarily Nevada. Two and half months later, the first legal sports bets in Mississippi were placed on Aug. 1, exactly 26 years to the day after casino gambling began in the Magnolia State. Twenty-three casinos scattered across the state have begun taking bets, combining to take more than $157 million in wagers since August, according to the Mississippi Gaming Commission -- despite only being permitted to offer in-person betting.

"In December, we wrote 25,000 tickets (bets) and $8 million," Hall, the Beau Rivage sportsbook director, said. "The average bet was $308."

"Compared to when I got out of this business, players have so much more access to information now. It's impressive how really sharp they are." Beau Rivage sportsbook manager Will Hall

"The size of the wagers that we've taken," Dardeau added, "how many six-figure wagers and some really big three-team parlays for five figures, has been a little surprising."

Mississippi books finished 2018 up a net $14.8 million, with a solid 10.6 hold percentage (the amount the book keeps or hold of the amount wagered) -- greater than Las Vegas books. It wasn't a stress-free ride for the books, though. In October and November, sportsbooks in Mississippi's coastal region suffered back-to-back losing months on football bets, including a $600,000 hit in October. Of course, they made it all back up and then some on baseball and basketball those months.

"Since we implemented sports betting in August, overall, gross gaming revenue was up in every region," Jay McDaniel, deputy director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said.

With Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence taking a knee to kill the final seconds of a blowout win over Alabama, two casually dressed, grizzled casino gamblers, Robin from Daytona Beach and Robert from Baton Rouge, sip Jack Daniels and watch the Clemson romp at a table. They each have modest bets on the Tigers and the over.

"Just to have a little skin in the game," Robin said. "Gambling is entertainment; I expect to lose."

"I just wanted to bet against Alabama," Robert added.

Right behind them, at the betting counter just outside the restaurant and bar, a few people were stepping up to cash their tickets. Some Crimson Tide fans had moved over to the craps table, potentially to get their minds off the butt-kicking their team just received.

In almost a resigned tone, one Crimson Tide supporter let out a "Roll Tide" then rolled the dice.