Richard Carson / Houston Chronicle via AP
Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Mattress Mack is the kind of character who fits nicely into the Las Vegas betting scene, skipping from sports book to sports book in search of a big score.
That he was placing a $3.5 million bet on his beloved Houston Astros in Mississippi last week — and an additional $1.5 million a few days later in New Jersey — is just the latest evidence that sports betting is not just a Vegas thing anymore.
“I don’t know of anyone who would take this much money at one time,” said Mack, whose real name is Jim McIngvale, a Houston furniture store operator. “Nobody takes action like this.”
While McIngvale is finding new places to bet his millions — hedging against a big mattress promotion at his stores — sports betting markets are quickly expanding across the nation. Bettors can wager in 13 different states, and increasingly they can do it on their mobile phones in states like Indiana.
Meanwhile, another once-taboo threshold was crossed when Ted Leonsis and sports book operator William Hill announced they would build a two-story sports book inside the arena where his Wizards and Capitals play in Washington, D.C. The book could be open next year, allowing fans to make bets without leaving the arena.
And then there’s betting giant William Hill announcing a deal with the NBA to become the fourth betting company to sign on as an authorized sports betting operator for the league.
The sports betting market is exploding 16 months after a Supreme Court ruling last year that allowed states other than Nevada to offer wagering on games. Inside casinos and racetracks and increasingly on mobile phones bettors can back their favorite teams with a few dollars — and do it without the shadow of illegitimacy the activity had in the past.
That means bettors in Indiana can pull up an app to put in a $5 parlay on the Colts, and it means casinos like the Scarlet Pearl in Biloxi — where the sports book is operated by DraftKings — can take a $3.5 million bet on Houston that, at plus-220, will pay out a staggering $7.7 million if the Astros win the World Series.
“I think people are still getting their head around the idea that you don’t have to go to Vegas to bet,” said Matt Kalish, the chief revenue officer and co-founder of DraftKings. “We want people to come to us for these bets.”
It hasn’t taken long for states to jump on the sports betting bandwagon. Thirteen now have live betting in some form, while a handful of others also have passed laws to eventually allow wagers on sports.
In New Jersey, where the court case that opened the floodgates originated, more money was wagered on sports in three of the last four months than in Nevada. Some $10 million a day was bet in New Jersey alone in August, a figure that will only grow as more fans become comfortable with legal betting.
The Legal Sports Report website, which tracks betting figures, reports nearly $11 billion has been wagered legally across the country since June 2018, with sports books keeping about $690 million of that, or a win rate of 6.4%. The website estimates that states have collected more than $82 million in taxes and fees from the wagers, with New Jersey topping the list at more than $32 million.
That doesn’t mean Nevada is suffering. Despite fears that sports betting might siphon off play in the state, total betting was up 16% from August a year ago, with $288 million in wagers.
Players like Mattress Mack aren’t abandoning the city, even while going to new markets in Mississippi and New Jersey that are more eager than Las Vegas books to take his huge bets because the publicity is worth millions to them.
It’s the same Mattress Mack who two years ago bet millions at various Las Vegas books on the Astros. McIngvale was making the bets to hedge against a promotion at his stores that offered refunds for mattresses over $3,000 sold during the season if the Astros won the World Series.
“We hedged off about $12 million-$13 million in that promotion,” McIngvale said. “It worked out very well for us.”
A bigger wager for Draft Kings is that it can become one of a handful of dominant players in the burgeoning industry. The company that helped found the daily fantasy sports market is now in five states, three of them with physical books.
Kalish said Draft Kings has more than 10 million fantasy players, but that sports betting will eventually surpass fantasy betting and become the company’s biggest revenue generator.
“We launched in New Jersey and it became 30% of our revenue as a company,” he said. “Sports betting props are easier to understand and it’s more digestible to step in and make a bet. It’s just a bigger market. There’s more overall demand for sports betting than fantasy now.”
There also is a lot of interest in who wins big bets and who ends up a loser. For McIngvale, that translates into an added bonus after his store saw some customers buy 5 to 10 mattresses at a time as the Astros looked like World Series favorites.
“The Astros are hot, it’s a good promotion and in brick and mortar retailing we have to do something to be relevant,” he said. “I did the Super Bowl a few years ago when Denver lost to Seattle and I got $10 million worth of advertising off that. I think I’ll get a whole lot more off this.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected]