For Chicago’s Ed Berry, it started with a theory.
“The theory I had was [about] 20-, 30-somethings in really good affluent neighborhoods who like to hang out at corner taverns in their area,” he explained. “Why should we have to tell them to go to a local casino, to go to a local sportsbook, which is not a place where people hang out.”
Berry’s theory made him want to bring “the Las Vegas kind of sportsbook look and feel” to the ubiquitous corner bar, of which there are plenty in Chicago. Prior to New York‘s arrival on the mobile sports betting scene to start the new year, Illinois had established itself as a top-three market nationally in betting activity, joining Nevada and New Jersey as the only states to surpass $7 billion in handle in 2021.
Berry made his vision a reality last month with the opening of the Over/Under Sports Bar in the Lakeview section of Chicago on the city’s north side. The former head of interactive sales for CBS Television, Berry conceptualized a venue that combined game-watching and odds-checking, with dozens of 65-inch television screens showing live action and live betting lines.
“The space started with trying to find the area that I thought had the best collection of 20- and 30-something young adults with a higher-level income and education that I think was spending a proportionate amount of money on their sports betting apps,” Berry said of the neighborhood around 2723 N. Halsted St,, which was previously the Hidden Shamrock Tavern.
“I looked for anchors in the retail community to build off of, and the new Dom’s Kitchen and Market across the street is going to be one of 10 over the next five years — this is their flagship store,” he added, referring to the marketplace owned by city grocery magnate Bob Mariano. “Given the fact the doors of his store open across the street to my doors here, it was a no-brainer to pick this spot.”
A quick process from brainstorm to brews
Lakeview was not the first place Berry and his investment group scouted last summer after he came up with the idea, but he brought the group to North Halsted for a look on July 3. By late September, he had the keys to the building. After a celebratory period in which he and his friends “had a couple of drinks of what stock was left in the cooler,” it was just 111 days before Over/Under opened.
“This is my strong suit,” Berry said about the quick turnaround. “I have a unique ability — I can walk into a bombed-out space or a cluttered space and I can see the final vision of what it would be. You’d be amazed how much it looks like exactly like we designed at this point. You have to have the right vision with the space.
“A lot of times, people think about just gutting things, and it’s easier to go in and say, ‘What can stay? What can I do to redecorate? What can I do to open the room?’ Deconstruction is better than construction sometimes.”
Programming televisions is a relatively easy process, but finding an outlet to procure and provide the 40 or so 65-inch screens, ticker crawls, and real-time odds for those screens is a difficult one. Enter Skybox Sports Network, which Berry found after an internet search lasting slightly more than a week. Skybox has offices in Las Vegas and Vancouver and was able to supply both the technology and content Berry sought.
Here's another shot of our sports ticker and betting boards at Over/Under Sports Bar in #Chicago ! If you're in the area, check them out! These guys ROCK! #GamblingTwitter #NFL #NFLTwitter #sportsbets pic.twitter.com/PBvhsgigzK
— SKYBOX SPORTS NETWORK – CONTENT YOU CAN BET ON! (@sports_skybox) January 10, 2022
“The thing that was different with Ed is that in launching some of these concepts that we’re still working on, Ed had a little higher vision for the whole product and concept,” said Ron Frederickson, who works in sales at Skybox Sports. “He wanted multiple screens and multiple tickers and wanted to give it that Las Vegas look and feel, and he did a really good job with it in a very short period of time.”
Courting sportsbooks in a new business model
Berry is all about pace and refers to this market as a “speed game.” His sales background provides first-hand knowledge of accountability on return on investment and cost per acquisition, the latter currently the biggest challenge among sports betting operators trying to obtain brand loyalty.
He cited New York’s mobile launch last month as an example, with operators “trying to establish themselves as the top app or the second app because people don’t want to have a third or fourth app on their phone or they usually don’t.”
Berry views the Over/Under as an “accelerator opportunity” in which people who are coming to the bar are predisposed to bet and can do so faster by seeing the live games and odds screens and the games on the wall. He has been weighing the pros and cons of partnering with one sportsbook or possibly working out an affiliate arrangement with all of them through sign-ups.
“We’re actually talking to four books right now. Some I flew in from out of town to be here in the last week, and I’m trying to set up a partnership with one of them where they can be exclusive,” Berry said without disclosing his potential partners. “I would change all my inventories to change my odds board from eight different books to one, and bling out the whole place. I want to add a lot more Vegas feel to it so that you really feel like you’re in a sportsbook with their addition to it, and they can bring in extra screens.”
The impending mobile ‘March madness’
Last night: Illinois Lawmakers Approve Mobile Betting Remote Registration
In-person registration set to end March 5 ahead of March Madness with governor's signature.
— Sports Handle (@sports_handle) October 29, 2021
March 5 has been circled by pretty much everyone in Illinois who has any sort of connection to sports wagering — bettor, bet taker, bar owner, Berry. It is the day when remote registration begins statewide and people can download apps onto their smartphone without registering in person at the tethered casino of a mobile operator.
The mobile market in Illinois matured quicker than expected due to Gov. JB Pritzker’s issuance and renewals of Executive Order 2020-41 for most of 2020 and into last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has been nearly a full calendar year since remote registration was available. It is likely not a coincidence Barstool Sportsbook was the last mobile operator to enter the state last March, shortly after Pritzker’s final renewal.
It is also why BetMGM is eagerly counting down the days until it makes its request to the Illinois Gaming Board to commence mobile wagering after being approved for a Management Services Provider license last month. For FanDuel and DraftKings, which together have accounted for more than two-thirds of mobile handle, it is also the day when they can finally re-access the Chicago market while having their retail tethers closer to St. Louis.
Berry, who joked that March 5 will be “a coming-out party,” is planning for this expected increase in action by adding an innovative wrinkle among his staff.
“I have a concept called ‘The Pit Boss,'” he said. “And the pit boss’ job is to walk around the place and tell people, ‘I’m not paid to tell you what to bet on, but I am paid to drop some knowledge on you — what games do you like?’ Now I can have a version of him for the NCAA Tournament, someone who really knows every basketball school and the matchups, and they go and drop knowledge.
“The whole idea is to have somebody [customers] feel can help them. Their job is not to sell food or drink, their job is to help get people to download the app or to pull out that app. …. Having someone like that is a real vision that March 5, that job kicks in.”
Berry said he has hired extra bar backs and runners for the upcoming period, which allows the Over/Under to put a spotlight on the bartender as “an advisor like they used to be” who engages with patrons. He added that the cost of additional staff has already proven its worth in customer satisfaction, positive reviews on social media, and customers extending their stay upon returning for a second time and beyond.
The competition isn’t who you think it is
With sports venues allowed to offer wagering after the Chicago City Council lifted the home rule ban in December, operators are moving quickly to build out spaces. DraftKings was first in September 2020 by partnering with the Cubs in planning to open a sportsbook at Wrigley Field by the start of the 2023 season. FanDuel recently announced plans for a similar venue at the United Center.
Of more direct comparison to Over/Under, Penn National Gaming opened Barstool River North last month. It is one of two stand-alone bars Penn National has opened tied to the Barstool Sports brand and vying for the demographic Berry is chasing. Yet Berry made an interesting statement on who he feels his actual competition is.
“My biggest competition is the one that doesn’t exist today — it’s the groups out there that say, ‘We should copy this,’” he said. “That’s why I want a sportsbook partner now, so I can move as fast as they can. Help me move as a company putting in the right financial resources to do that, as opposed to me trying to raise another round of money with the people to build a second or third one.”
While loathe to call Over/Under a chain or franchise, Berry does envision a business model in which he opens a singular location in multiple markets. The Chicago location is comfortably sized at 3,000 square feet, but Berry believes he needs more than triple that for a true impact.
As he strives to find the right balance in these opening months, it is clear Berry is looking to overdeliver and avoid being underwhelming.
“I think the person we’re dealing with that wants this environment loves the immediacy of information,” he said. “The true value of social media is engagement, and how do you measure the engagement? There are ‘likes’ on Facebook, but what do you love? … You have to give them opportunity to fuel their passions, their interests in what they’re doing.
“The customer is always the most important person, but you have to figure out how we can be different and better than the next guy — to have them say, ‘I can’t wait to come back, especially tomorrow when the really big game is on and I’m bringing all my friends.’ It’s not just watching the game, it’s actually being part of it.”
All photos by Chris Altruda