STICKNEY, Ill. — PointsBet became the eighth retail sports betting operator to launch in the state of Illinois on Wednesday when CEO Johnny Aitken and Hawthorne Race Course CEO and President Tim Carey cut the ceremonial ribbon to the area where sports wagering will be conducted at the track on the south side of Chicago.
PointsBet commenced mobile operations in Illinois on Sept. 12, and signed a deal to be the official betting partner of the Chicago Bears last Friday. As allowed by the gaming expansion bill Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law in June 2019, the Australian-based sportsbook will eventually offer sports wagering at off-track betting locations in Crestwood, Oakbrook Terrace, and Prospect Heights — all located within a 35-mile radius of downtown Chicago.
“We always knew coming from Australia what an amazing city Chicago was,” Aitken said as he and Carey addressed those who came out for the launch. “It’s one of the greatest cities when it comes to sports. We made a beeline to this market and really wanted to partner with great people, a great facility, and a great tradition, and that’s everything Hawthorne has.”
Said Carey, whose family has owned the track since 1909: “This is an incredible, incredible day here for us at Hawthorne. To be standing up here representing a family that has put on a show for 111 years now, it’s truly incredible, it’s humbling, and as a family we couldn’t be happier. We chose PointsBet because as a partner, they have vision for sports betting in Illinois. We chose PointsBet because they’re innovative in everything that they do. We chose them because they’re customer-service driven.”
Hawthorne Race Course opened in 1891 and is the oldest sports venue in Illinois. The launch of retail sports betting is the first part of the plan to eventually turn the track into a racino, and construction is underway with a target of a December 2021 opening.
What the betting area looks like
The current retail sportsbook area is temporary, with Aitken offering that the racino will feature a large sportsbook. Bettors will find 26 self-serve kiosks in a relatively compact area, save for four that are located in the VIP area where patrons can watch the horses make their initial turn on the 1-mile dirt oval.
The kiosks are grouped together in bunches of four or six, and are partitioned by plexiglass per COVID-19 protocols, and six-foot social distancing markers are visible at both the self-serve kiosks and the three manned teller windows. There is also a fourth teller window and lane for “VIP bettors” who are wagering more than $500.
The teller windows are to the immediate left as patrons enter the sports betting area, and there is also a bank of 20 video screens in the lobby area. There are another 15 screens in the VIP area, which is more spacious in contrast to the grandstand seating area.
Village of Stickney Mayor Jeff Walik and Illinois state representative Bob Rita — a primary driver of the gaming expansion bill — made the ceremonial first bets, with Walik betting $130 on the Cubs on the run line for today’s opening game of their first-round playoff series versus the Miami Marins, and Rita wagering the same amount with a parlay on the Cubs and White Sox, who face the Oakland Athletics in Game 2 of their series, also today. The $130 wagered by both was a nod to Hawthorne’s 130th year in business.
Aitken sees kindred spirits in PointsBet and Hawthorne
Given the popularity of horse racing in Australia — the Melbourne Cup is equivalent to the Kentucky Derby in the United States — there was an instant line of sight in partnering for Aitken and PointsBet with Hawthorne. The partnership also fits the profiles of each executive in terms of a direct-to-consumer approach.
“For us, we want to do business with great people and we also want to play a part in what we hope will will be a revolution when it comes to horse racing and fixed-odds racing and how that interplays with sports betting,” Aitken told Sports Handle. “So honestly, the first party we spoke to when we came to Chicago was Hawthorne, and from Day One, and I know it sounds cheesy, but there was that connection and click with the two parties.
“We’re both challenger brands, both have a vision of what it takes to succeed. It’s about goodwill, customer service, really knowing the market, and for us it’s about our technology. That’s what drove us to partner with them.”
It has been a whirlwind summer for Aitken and PointsBet, which has aggressively courted professional sports teams for sponsorship opportunities. They have a deal similar to the one with the Bears in place with the Indiana Pacers and one with the Detroit Tigers ahead of PointsBet’s mobile launch in Michigan.
The Bears could eventually have company among Chicago teams PointsBet sponsors as the operator’s recent deal with NBCUniversal in which the media company purchased a 4.99% stake in PointsBet provides a path to the White Sox, NBA Bulls, and NHL Blackhawks, who air games on NBC Sports Chicago.
“Any deal we enter there strictly has to be an investment for a multiple return of investment and assets,” Aitken explained, noting PointsBet has internal and external groups to help them affix a value to those deals.
“There are unique markets like Illinois, where we want to be the first partner of the Chicago Bears, NFL’s king. It also is a sport with our NBC partnership who are the broadcast rights holders of the Blackhawks, Bulls and the White Sox.”
Aitken also is bullish on the Illinois sports betting market overall, noting “we exploded out of the gate” with regards to mobile sign-ups in the state and is confident bettors will find PointsBet a viable sportsbook among the offerings available in the Prairie State.
“I feel whilst everything is FanDuel and DraftKings when you turn on TV, I think people are looking for something else, something different, something that next level will bring you. For Illinois in particular and Chicago, it’s a huge market, a sports-loving market. I think they can see through phony and gimmicky offerings and promotions, and they want something that matters.
“When we offer the best price on every Bears game, we mean it. It’s not a gimmick, it’s every game for the rest of the season.”
Carey: Partnership is start of horse racing resurgence
As arguably the first family of horse racing in Illinois, Carey has lived through the ups and downs of the industry. He recounted when the state was as high as fourth in the nation in terms of the pecking order for thoroughbred racing. With Illinois currently languishing around 20th, piecing together sports betting and casino gaming offers the opportunity for a continuation of multi-generation ownership at Hawthorne, as well as the seeds of a racing resurgence.
“We’ve been privileged to get this license and now we get to reinvigorate horse racing,” Carey said to Sports Handle, looking long-term to the racino. “It allows us to hire 1,000-1,200 people and allow us to showcase and develop what we’re all about.”
While the Hawthorne CEO acknowledges the pressure of stewardship of the industry in the state, it is pressure he readily accepts. Fairmount Park has also applied for a sports betting license as part of its plans to also become a racino, while Churchill Downs has not committed to racing at Arlington International beyond the 2021 season, in part because of the success it has enjoyed as a majority shareholder in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
“It’s incredible pressure, but a pressure because I want to make sure horse racing survives,” he said. “I want to make sure that of course the business itself survives, but once you get there, it’s about the employees we have. We have employees who have worked here 40-plus years. Now they really do get to retire when they want.”
Hawthorne, PointsBet are ‘scrappers’
The mingling of the horse racing industry DNA between Hawthorne and PointsBet appeals to Carey, who pointed out the Australian group “has some ideas of what we could do to improve horse racing.” The term Aitken used when describing the two companies was “scrappers,” and Carey sees those attributes — and innovation — in PointsBet.
“What I like about PointsBet specifically is that they’re a young, very innovative company,” Carey said. “That’s what we need in horse racing, and because of this legislation, we need to think differently. Our patron base over the future years is going to be different and so (if) we’re going to reintroduce people to horse racing, we need to think different.
“For PointsBet, they just do things in such a different manner that has just been outstanding. That’s what we really enjoy about them. They do everything behind the scenes on their own. It’s all streamlined, and as a family business, that’s what we’re all about.