LAWRENCEBURG, Ind. — In the cramped space that is the “cage” of the Barstool Sportsbook at Hollywood Casino, social distancing can best be described as challenging in what looks to be about 300 square feet of space.
Three ticket takers are actively accepting wagers as a steady stream of bettors queue during the second round of the NCAA tournament. The 1-8 matchup between Illinois and Loyola of Chicago has already tipped off, but it is still a busy Sunday of college basketball action with seven more tournament games on the docket — plus the usual March doings of golf, NBA, NHL, spring training baseball, and assorted futures bets that will be placed.
Behind the ticket takers is Hugh Aufill, Hollywood’s sportsbook manager, in a constant state of motion. One moment, he’s talking to a bettor on the VIP line. The next, checking something on a computer. Then he is in conversation with one of his ticket takers. He shuttles in and out of the small closed-off space adjacent to the cage.
“I know that everything I do on the daily, from never forgetting what it was like to be a ticket writer so I can help from these guys go from zero,” Aufill said to Sports Handle during a lull in action, “because you have to think – everybody that I hired had never done this before.
“To put the team together the way we wanted to, make it a very good atmosphere, it has been about what I expected.”
Aufill is the tangible form of the kinetic energy that comes with sports betting in March and the driving force behind the highest-generating brick-and-mortar sportsbook in Indiana in terms of handle and revenue following the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bringing a touch of Vegas to the Hoosier State
— Rick Broering (@RickBroering) March 23, 2021
Aufill had plenty of experience in Las Vegas running a sportsbook prior to arriving in Lawrenceburg, having served as a sportsbook manager and/or race and sports supervisor at four different locations. He joined Penn National Gaming as a casino host in Dayton, Ohio, in 2016 and was named sportsbook manager in Lawrenceburg in June 2019 shortly after Indiana legalized sports wagering.
Sportsbook kiosks, like self-checkout stations in the grocery store, have replaced the human touch of sportsbooks — the exchange of tickets and knowledge between the bettor and the guy behind the counter. To create that authentic experience, it takes a good team that can do more than simply punch in rotation numbers. Aufill has a staff of 10 who looked at ease moving through transactions on a busy afternoon — a vibe that came after trial by fire with the Hoosier State’s launch at the start of the 2019 NFL season.
“I told this team when we first started two years ago that September, the first football season, ‘Once you accomplish this football season, get out of the way, because nothing’s going to stop you now,'” he recalled. “March Madness is great but it’s over a little period of time.
“You always keep that edge to make yourself better, but once you get through that football season as a writer, as a supervisor, you embrace that. It helps during pressure situations to relax and that’s when I felt we turned a corner. … You get through that, the rest is cake.”
Aufill beams with pride about his staff, noting his entire team came back from furlough as the sports schedule ramped up. The popularity of the sportsbook is a validation of him sticking to the basics — explaining how almost every wager works off a moneyline, side bet, or totals (over/under), — and having risen through the ranks performing all the duties his staff now does for him.
“The one thing I always use with my interviews is, ‘You see the wall? I’m going to run through that wall. The question is, are you going to come follow me,'” he said. “When you set the precedent of I’m going to roll around in the mud and be there for them, for any circumstances, it’s going to be about growing and things you learn.”
The numbers justify the methods
With a prime location bordering Ohio and Kentucky — two states that do not have legalized sports wagering yet — Hollywood Lawrenceburg is able to draw on Cincinnati, Louisville, and Lexington in addition to Indianapolis to generate handle and revenue. With COVID still putting a drag on destination travel, Aufill knows his sportsbook is part of an attractive gaming scene the casino offers.
“Our properties have table games, offer slots, and that’s been a big thing during COVID,” he said. “It’s allowed people to embrace their local properties to where they haven’t traveled to Las Vegas as much. … They embrace it to the same attitude they had when they travel to Las Vegas, but now they’re traveling 50, 60 miles down the road and coming to enjoy this environment.”
The $75.5 million wagered on sports at Hollywood since August is easily the most of Indiana’s nine casinos and nearly matches the combined total of second- and third-ranked venues Ameristar and Horseshoe Hammond, both of which attract bettors from nearby Chicago and northern Indiana.
Hollywood has posted $10 million or more in handle in each of the last five months, the only venue to reach eight figures in any month during that span. Its $10.4 million in operator revenue over the last seven months also is a high-water mark for in-state casino sportsbooks. Aufill, though, thinks he can raise the bar higher.
|Casino||Retail Handle From August 2020 to February 2021||Revenue From August 2020 to February 2021|
|Caesars Southern Indiana||$15,848,171||$1,508,522|
|French Lick Resort||$3,915,923||$207,752|
“We’re still raising it, and each time I look through our numbers I want to get better each month,” Aufill responded, when asked if he’s reached the potential ceiling of his sportsbook. “I want to grow that each month. You get doubters – ‘Oh baseball season, you’re not going to do this much.’ I’m going to see what I can do. If you create the culture of wanting to be here, we’ll keep growing it.”
Barstool and beyond
From this —> this 🔥
— Hollywood Casino LWB (@HollywoodIND) March 20, 2021
Aufill’s sportsbook was one of many that Penn National Gaming rebranded under the Barstool Sports banner. It is close to launching its mobile app in Indiana, but the retail side delivered a different challenge. The bar and restaurant adjoining the sportsbook is a far cry from Las Vegas, where all Aufill looks to put bottoms on stools, and in seats.
“The Barstool sports scene let us tap into a different group,” he said. “People follow them on Twitter or different social media. Once that came about and we remodeled what this is and how the tables are and the aesthetics of everything goes on, it is visually appealing to all the patrons that come in here.”
Aufill also recognizes the reality sports betting will continue to expand. Just over the Ohio River, the Buckeye State and Kentucky have legislators actively trying (in fits and starts) to legalize sports wagering. Eventually, competition will come. Still, Aufill is very confident his team can take on all comers when that time arrives, boosted by his own experience.
“There isn’t anybody who is in this area … that has 18 years of experience running a sportsbook and being able to do this and put it together,” he said. “Treat people good, always have an ear for them to be able to help, to be able to guide, to help them understand, to help teach them and make it a blast while they’re here. Make it a fun environment.
“I’m passionate about what I do, my team is great about everything, so keep building the momentum. Keep getting new patrons and telling them, ‘Hey tell your other friends to come down’ and continue to treat people right.”