CRESTWOOD, Ill. — Some pairings naturally go together, while others need a little time to gel.
When PointsBet opened its retail sports betting operation at Hawthorne Race Course in Illinois last September, it stressed that the buildout was a temporary one — the Stickney location is under construction to become what PointsBet CEO Johnny Aitken and Hawthorne Race Course CEO and President Tim Carey hope will be a top-line, full-service racino that attracts bettors from Chicago and beyond.
As construction continues, the duo are in the process of opening retail sportsbooks at three off-track betting sites around the Chicago area as allowed by the law that Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed in June 2019. OTB sites are nothing new given they are part of the lifeblood of the horse racing industry, but teaming them with sports betting in the Land of Lincoln is a novelty.
UPDATE: The PointsBet Sportsbook at Club Hawthorne Crestwood is OPEN🔥
See the image for more info, and we hope to see you out there! pic.twitter.com/5xvi2cCCKa
— PointsBet Illinois (@PointsBetIL) January 27, 2021
The first of the three locations opened late last month in Crestwood in the south suburbs of Chicago. Club Hawthorne was also the beneficiary of fortuitous timing Wednesday when its location in Region 10 of the state’s COVID-19 mitigation measures advanced into Phase 4. That allows capacity to increase from 25% to 50% and permits indoor dining and drinking for parties of up to 10 people.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is over the whole pandemic, we were able to re-deploy our staff,” said Mick Teal, PointsBet’s senior business operations manager in the Midwest, during an on-site interview with Sports Handle. “We didn’t have any staff go on furlough, we kept them all on board and that’s something we’re pretty proud of.
“To be open for the Super Bowl was huge from that psychology point of view, but not only from the PointsBet side but also for the community side of things in terms of getting everything back open and COVID-normal. I think that’s pretty cool for the next six-12 months to get to that normal.”
An Aussie in the Windy City
A native Australian, Teal has been part of the PointsBet organization since January 2020 and is just about fully acclimated to Chicago winters. Club Hawthorne was his third retail opening along with Catfish Bend Casino in Iowa and the Southside Chicago track.
Prior to PointsBet he spent nine years at Tabcorp, which is Australia’s largest gambling company. While wagering in Australia is more directly tied to horse racing than sporting events — the two are the cornerstones of the partnership here between PointsBet and Hawthorne — Teal’s skill set on the retail side made him a near-perfect match for PointBet’s stateside expansion.
“With Australia, it’s a very unique industry there. As an example, anywhere from 70-80% of handle is bet on racing and the other 20-30% is bet on sports,” he said. “When I heard about the opportunity at PointsBet, I remember getting reached out to by Sam Swanell, our group CEO, and straight away my eyes lit up. I thought, ‘This is going to be huge.’
“I on-boarded really well with [PointsBet VP of Corporate Development] Paul Hannan, he gave me a really great lay of the land, and the opportunity here was phenomenal. To work in a race book as well as a sportsbook, that was able to combine a couple of my passions … to be able to watch LeBron James on our 163-inch TV, it’s pretty special to be able to do that.”
Teal noted some differences in sports betting here versus in Australia, with the NFL the top sport in America and basketball most popular for wagering there. He joked that he thought “it would be 100% money on the Bears, but it’s been an interesting split.” Specific to the Chicago area, Teal added he hears talk about “the local bookie” — which is what he feels is the biggest challenge in “converting them to legal sports wagering.”
Bringing horse racing and sports wagering together
— U.S. Trotting Assn. (@USTrotting) January 27, 2021
There are high expectations for PointsBet and Hawthorne to be a successful partnership; it, along with Fairmount Park’s similar pairing with FanDuel on the other side of the state, will be a key factor in the success or failure for the horse-racing industry in the state of Illinois. The OTB locations are akin to a hands-on experiment bringing two distinct groups of bettors together.
It was something Carey and Hawthorne Assistant General Manager John Walsh have referenced with the need for a younger demographic to jolt horse racing in Illinois, and something Teal will try to deliver.
“I think of the Venn diagram. You’ve got racing customers and sports customers. There is definitely a lap-over in the middle,” Teal said, adding an educated bettor is the best component for success. “People love to come down and place a bet on ‘Race 6, Number 6,’ but also want to bet on the L.A. Lakers to beat the Portland Trail Blazers. There’s definitely that combination the customer will be loving, but what we’ll be able to do is drive a new type of audience to the location and by doing that, get them in the door and then potentially they may also fall in love with the racing product.”
In the case of Club Hawthorne at Crestwood, it also means utilizing the second screen of a smartphone to get customers to experience PointsBet’s full online betting capabilities. Its signature offering of “points betting” — in which people can wager to win or lose larger amounts based on the the margin of the outcome — is only available online, and Teal is confident his staff can be that bridge from retail to mobile, while also giving bettors a memorable in-person experience.
“First and foremost, we’re a tech company. … Whenever customers are in the venue, all of our staff are actively trained to speak to customers and try and convert them from retail to digital. We know that not every customer is the same: Our guys are trained to get to know the person, identify what they want, and then give them the appropriate offer which is tailored to them.”
Dealing with the pandemic
When asked about potential hurdles, Teal labeled COVID-19 as the biggest problem facing Club Hawthorne. He cited the unknowns it creates, be it reduced occupancy or shutting down for an indefinite period of time. He noted if the state does not continue its mitigation efforts, “we could be shut down in a month’s time. That’s not something we’re planning for at the moment, but we’re aware of and we can shift into that gear if we need to.”
Being open for the Super Bowl this weekend, though, gives Teal optimism. He practically beamed envisioning what Club Hawthorne could be at full capacity, citing instances over the summer when people of all walks would come to the track as a meeting point and how it could be duplicated at Crestwood.
“The opportunity for me is putting on this amazing venue which can sit up to 100 people, and I can’t wait for the day this is all sold out with a group of eight buddies there, eight buddies there, the whole place rocking,” he said while pointing to the seating areas surrounded by large TV screens. “It’s trying to spread the word and get as many people to know about these facilities.”