Book It: Sports Betting Takes Off in Arkansas


Oaklawn's sportsbook offers a theater-like ambiance for bettors.
Oaklawn's sportsbook offers a theater-like ambiance for bettors. (Karen E. Segrave)
The Quapaw Nation waded into sportsbook wagering four months ago at its Saracen Annex in Pine Bluff.  Posher space is under construction
nearby at the Saracen Casino Resort.
The Quapaw Nation waded into sportsbook wagering four months ago at its Saracen Annex in Pine Bluff. Posher space is under construction nearby at the Saracen Casino Resort. (Karen E. Segrave)

How do you judge success when you’re starting from scratch?

That’s the dilemma for Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, which opened up its sportsbook in October. In the last three months of 2019, Saracen handled nearly $1.4 million in bets on sports.

“Those numbers came in entirely on four self-service machines,” said Carlton Saffa, project manager for Saracen Casino Resort. “They look like the machines you check yourself into an airplane on.”

The Quapaw Nation, which runs Saracen, also operates casinos in Oklahoma, but it had no sports gambling. Arkansans voted to allow casino gambling in November 2018.

“This is our first shot at sports betting, and Chairman [John] Berrey said we had no experience so our expectations had no historical context,” Saffa said. “When you look at slot revenue or table game revenue, you have an expectation because it is based on historical context. We knew it would do well.

“Chairman Berrey said, ‘We are going to do well but what does well look like?’ This is new to us. We are very pleased.”

By comparison, the sportsbook handle at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs began in July and was nearly $10 million over six months. In three months, the handle was about $2 million, and in a fourth it was just shy of $2 million.

Oaklawn’s better numbers are not surprising, considering Oaklawn’s history as a gambling mecca. Saracen’s $350 million casino complex won’t be finished until mid-year, and the current slot machines and sportsbook operate out of a quickly constructed annex.

According to a survey done before the 2019 NFL season, the American Gaming Association reported 15% of Americans planned to bet on an NFL game; 24% said they would bet on an NFL game if it were legal locally.

Now 20 states allow it, and the AGA reported that 13% of adults in Arkansas planned to bet on pro football.

The state’s passion for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks could factor in, and while the legalization of sports gambling hasn’t created new headaches for college officials, it has heightened awareness.

“In the past, gambling was always in the back of our minds,” said Deputy Athletic Director Jon Fagg. “Now it is in the front. Before, we were worried about potential point shaving and things like that, and we have even more emphasis on information sharing.”

Fagg said the university will focus more on reminding its athletes that what seems like innocent information — i.e., the star player has an unreported injury — could cause problems if shared with the wrong people. That diligence was easier, Fagg said, when betting was done by people in back rooms.

“There were only X percentage of people actually gambling,” Fagg said. “Now it is X times Y. So many people participate in gambling we have to be more vigilant.”

Saffa said Saracen’s sportsbook is done through betting technology platforms created by International Game Technology of London. IGT handles sports betting for casinos and other venues in 10 states.

Saffa said IGT’s expertise was needed because of the complex technology involved in sportsbook operations. IGT will also handle Saracen’s sportsbook when the main venue opens later this year.

When the permanent sportsbook opens in the Legends bar, patrons will be able to bet on the game they’re watching. Eventually customers will be able to place bets through a cellphone app while they are on the casino’s premises, Saffa said.

“The thing about sports betting that is so great is it is an amenity that brings folks into our facility who may not have otherwise come in,” he said.