The business of legalized sports betting in New Mexico is, to borrow the phrase, paying off.
The state’s only legal sportsbooks — at Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino north of Santa Fe and Santa Ana Star Casino northwest of Albuquerque — are up and running. By most accounts, business is better than expected.
Activity at both venues is up, organizers say, and the early reviews from consumers are positive.
“I think it’s only going to get bigger because what they’re doing right now seems to be working,” said Santa Fe resident Terence Mirabal, a casual sports bettor who has traveled to Las Vegas, Nev., several times and acknowledged that having a local option is appealing.
“Knowing there’s something just down the road is great,” he said, “because, really, this is something you kind of had to wait to do until you were in Vegas.”
That’s just the kind of reaction casino operators were hoping for after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a decades-old federal law nearly a year ago prohibiting most states from allowing casinos to start their own sportsbooks.
That cleared the path for states like New Jersey and Delaware to launch their own government-endorsed forms of gaming. Mississippi and West Virginia quickly followed suit, with New Mexico becoming the fifth state outside Nevada to allow sports betting.
Though sports gambling outside Las Vegas was seen as a potential revenue stream that could turn into a gusher, the New York Times recently reported several states considering legislation that would open sports betting to the public are backing off after their initial ardor.
Why? In some places, it hasn’t brought the windfall that was expected. The Times reported that West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Mississippi have received only half the tax revenue they anticipated, according to those states’ data.
But in New Mexico, where complex gambling compacts allow tribal casinos to open and operate sportsbooks without direct state legislation, sports fans’ hunger for gambling — and casinos’ willingness to satiate it — seem like a natural combination.
Robert Mann, a contributing writer for SportsHandle.com, a website dedicated to news and trends in the sports gaming industry, said New Mexico’s unique state-tribal gaming compacts give the pueblos plenty of autonomy in sports gambling.
“The laws are so different there,” he said. “It gives a lot of these tribes freedom to do things their own way.”
Buffalo Thunder already had a Las Vegas-style race book before the Supreme Court’s decision, using a Nevada-based firm, Las Vegas Dissemination Company, as its oddsmaker. LVDC Sales Director Jay Vaccaro said the two partnered again to expand into a full-fledged sportsbook with the company offering on-site training for staff as well as the installation of the necessary infrastructure within a matter of weeks.
Santa Ana’s sportsbook was installed in the fall by Las Vegas firm USBookmaking.
Buffalo Thunder’s layout comes with amenities that Santa Ana lacks, such as multiple TV screens to watch live sporting events and a wider array of betting options at the window. Everything was already in place at Buffalo Thunder, so it has been a natural transition to not only place bets on game days but on future events as well.
Vaccaro said Buffalo Thunder began taking bets on the opening week of the NFL season as well as laying odds on division winners and the Super Bowl. Making the entire process run smoothly was his company’s first mission. Sustaining a level of marketability and having the sportsbook become a proven moneymaker for the casino, however, is the ultimate goal.
“We understand the tribal gaming world and we respect that world, and the tribes go along with what their compacts allow them to do,” he said. “We’re about driving business and making sure it runs smoothly, so now it’s something where everyone who walks in there can have the things that Las Vegas casinos have.”
Mann said the idea of any sportsbook is to simply give the would-be bettor more options when strolling through a casino.
“If it’s increasing the amount of people that come in, then it’s worthwhile even if they just break even,” Mann said. “It’s about increasing foot traffic.”
The thinking goes that if someone is willing to visit the sportsbook and place a bet on, say, the Golden State Warriors or Ohio State Buckeyes, they’ll stay for dinner or sit down to play the slots or table games.
“Just look at it as a spoke in a wheel,” Mann said. “One spoke is slot machines, one spoke is a restaurant, one spoke is table games and one spoke is the sportsbook, and everything kind of works in successful operations. All the spokes work together; one feeds the other.”
It’s too early to tell if either New Mexico sportsbook will be a moneymaker, although observers say early indications are promising.
“You’ve got, what, half a million people [in Albuquerque] and quite a bit living around Santa Fe?” Mann said. “You keep things small, see what kind of traffic you can get in there and, yeah, I think it’s sustainable. If it’s done right, it’s always sustainable.”
Santa Ana’s sportsbook has been online since October, while Buffalo Thunder opened last month. Both opened with a $500 betting limit, but Mann pointed out that a good barometer for a sportsbook’s health is its willingness to raise the limit.
Buffalo Thunder upped its maximum to $1,000 for the NCAA Tournament and plans to do so again once the NFL season begins.
“After the tournament, as everything else, volume decreases,” Vacarro said. “People came [to Buffalo Thunder] just for the NCAA Tournament and, actually, we had a very good turnout there. People came from all over just knowing that the sportsbook was there.”
In many respects, Buffalo Thunder and Santa Ana have served as a litmus test for other casinos to observe and make their own judgments on whether to invest in their own sports betting venues. USBookmaking and LVDC have been in negotiations with other New Mexico pueblos to expand, although with whom and when remain closely guarded. The local casinos are known as being very private about daily operations.
Several calls and messages left for representatives at Buffalo Thunder were never returned, nor were inquiries to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office seeking comment regarding any attempts by the state to provide legal framework for sports betting.
The New Mexico Gaming Control Board, which also did not respond to several inquiries for this story, reported overall gambling revenues of $193 million through bets placed at the 14 tribal casinos in the final quarter of 2018. That translated into approximately $18 million for the state, money that goes into the general fund through the State Treasurer’s Office.
The annual payout to the state totaled $72 million in 2018 based on approximately $800 million in revenue. Because of the complexity of the gaming compacts and the short amount of time they’ve been active, it’s still unclear if or when the state will see any revenue from sportsbooks.
“You’ve seen some states put this on the back burner and not really consider it, but New Mexico’s laws are definitely unique to what you have there,” Mann said. “In a lot of ways, the casinos can do whatever they want. I’m interested to see how it will work but, yeah, I think it’s something that can work. I’m not sure how much money they’ll bring in, so it all kind of goes back to the spokes in a wheel. If it’s working, why wouldn’t everyone else try to do it, you know?”
It appears there have been few public complaints so far.
Kandace Blanchard, founder and clinical director of the New Mexico Council on Problem Gaming, said last week that there have been three calls of any significance to her organization, none of which was considered a crisis. The majority of her clients say they don’t go to the casinos to bet on sports and most use a bookie to ensure their winnings aren’t tracked or taxed.
For bettors like Mirabal, it’s all about the experience. A successful sportsbook, he said, can only be a good thing for the bean counters who turn a profit at the end of the day.
“If you really think about it, you probably put in a little extra money when you go play slots or you might put a little extra if you go play blackjack,” he said. “I’m assuming that’s what the normal gambler would do for sports betting. The more you look, the more curious you get. That’s what they want from you.”