Jay Kornegay is vice president, Westgate Resort and Casino SuperBook, where he has headed the world’s largest sportsbook since 2004. He spoke with Casino Journal Executive Editor Charles Anderer last month about sports betting in the post-PASPA era and what’s next for the SuperBook brand in Las Vegas and beyond. What follows are some edited excerpts.
So how did you get into this business?
KORNEGAY: [Laughter] I went to school at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. My group of friends went someplace new every spring break and the plan for our senior trip was to visit Vegas when we were all 21. When that came around I actually was the only one who didn’t want to come to Vegas; my vote was for Mexico. I got outvoted 7-to-1.
KORNEGAY: It’s funny. We came out here and this was 1987, before the Internet, social media, cellphones and all that. My friends were all playing blackjack and craps and I discovered the sportsbook at Bally’s. I just sat there for the longest period of time and I was intrigued by it. Thursday was poker night at CSU, but before we played poker we would go through the entire football schedule in the USA Today paper (look it up kids), go through every single game and bet each other for two bucks a game. So I was very familiar with the spreads and how it worked but I didn’t realize they had regulated sportsbooks out here, and after observing the operations for a few days, I thought it was something I could succeed at but, more importantly, I would enjoy it.
I told my girlfriend at the time—who I married and 28 years later is still my wife (we do joke we still like each other); she’s a sports fan, thank God—that I wanted to try the gaming industry but I wasn’t sure if we were ready for Vegas. So we moved to Tahoe to dip our toes in the water. We went there for a year, really enjoyed it, and then came down here where my first position, ironically enough, was at Bally’s. A couple of years later, in 1989, I assisted opening the new sportsbook at the Imperial Palace and took over as director in 1995. In 2004, I received an offer to head the SuperBook and have been here ever since.
Has this year’s football season gotten off to a good start?
KORNEGAY: We were as busy as ever in the first two weeks. A lot of people believed that the expansion of sports betting across the country was really going to hurt Vegas. Looking at the crowds we’ve seen so far, you wouldn’t know that sports betting had expanded outside of Nevada. It’s more popular than ever.
Kind of reminiscent of the fears that expanded regulated gaming outside of Nevada would hurt the business there but it only continued to grow.
KORNEGAY: True. You can’t emulate Las Vegas. Those that participate in gaming and enjoy it eventually make it out here to the “Entertainment Capital of the World.” We expect the same thing to happen with sports betting. Las Vegas is a destination; you can come out here and enjoy sports betting along with so many other entertainment opportunities.
There’s certainly nothing that compares with your product offer elsewhere in the U.S.
KORNEGAY: Correct. The SuperBook was built in 1986 as the world’s largest sportsbook and it remains so today. We have almost 30,000 square feet of space and we’re also home to the world’s largest 4K video wall—240 feet wide and 20 feet tall. It’s quite the venue and a must-see if you ever visit Las Vegas.
We have over 400 seats and it’s standing room only on the weekends or for any premier sporting event. Football Sundays are so popular that we have to open our 1,500-seat International Theater. This is the same theater where Elvis performed more than 800 sold-out shows. On football Sundays, we have 11 giant HD screens, F&B specials, a smoke-free environment and betting stations. We had about 1,200 guests in there for week one [of the NFL], which is always the busiest regular season week. On a normal week, you’re entertaining an additional 600 to 800 football fans in there.
The SuperBook is an extremely strong brand as well. Tell us how that has evolved.
KORNEGAY: A lot consider us the most recognized sportsbook in Nevada. We have tremendous relationships with the community, players, and the local/national media. We had a six-year relationship with ESPN that started with a phone call out of the blue. They came to us stating they did their homework and recognized us as the market leader —of course this was well before PASPA was overturned—and therefore they wanted to use our numbers for their primary odds provider.
One of the reasons that our brand is so strong is a lot of the odds that you see out there to win the Super Bowl, the NBA Championship, the Masters, over/under season wins, etc.… most of those originate and are first-to-market, through the SuperBook. That’s where we’ve really made a name for ourselves. The SuperBook is made up of oddsmakers and bookmakers. Our main oddsmakers have combined experience of over 125 years.
I know you’re looking at opportunities in other jurisdictions. How is that proceeding?
KORNEGAY: We have a business development team and they’re reviewing the opportunities out there. We’re patiently waiting for the right fit for us. We’ve seen a lot of interest in the SuperBook brand which has been in the U.S. market for over three decades, operating without incident; no fines or legal issues. We have tremendous relationships with regulators; we have credibility, and a sense of trust that are vital to those looking to enter the sports betting space. We have tremendous respect in the industry. Additionally, we respect a lot of our Nevada operators that have built the template of sports regulations, operations, and know the U.S. market. You’re definitely going to see us in other states; it’s just a matter of time.
How will you tailor your concept to fit individual markets?
KORNEGAY: Take an example such as Iowa—we have so many things we can do for that market. We have the expertise and experience to regionalize the betting menu, and offer the locals an expanded wagering option. In the Las Vegas market, for example, we have an expanded prop menu for the Golden Knights. We have a Golden Knights contest for the season coming up and we have a similar strategy for the Raiders when they arrive. If we were to go into, say, Illinois, they love their Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks. We would expand the betting menu to include a lot of different options on their games; different types of propositions and offerings that fans would really enjoy.
Talk about the impact of the Golden Knights on your business. Did it surprise you?
KORNEGAY: I always thought that hockey would be very popular here If Vegas ever landed a franchise. I was here in the mid-1990s when we had a Triple-A team called the Las Vegas Thunder and I frequently took my kids to those games. There were 10,000-11,000 fans at the Thomas & Mack Center for minor league hockey. Las Vegas is a community with a lot of transplants from hockey country. There’s a demographic here with a lot of disposable income. Hockey ticket prices here are among the highest in the league. The success of the team is what caught us off guard but not the popularity of hockey.
The proof one could say is you were sitting out there with 500-to-1 odds on the Stanley Cup that first season.
KORNEGAY: We listed the Knights at 300-to-1 odds and just before the last preseason game vs. the Kings those odds still remained. The Kings just returned from Asia (I believe) so they rested all their regulars and played all our top guys and destroyed them. I understand it was only preseason but this confirmed this team wasn’t ready to compete in this league so we raised them from 300 to 500-to-1. Then right out of the gate they beat Dallas in Dallas and then they scored four goals here in the first nine minutes right after the October 1 shooting and they just never looked back.
That kind of speaks to the volatility of sports betting, doesn’t it?
KORNEGAY: It is very volatile; it’s such a roller-coaster ride. I personally don’t get too high on the wins or too low on the losses. I realize we’ll be fine in the long run.
What are you expecting the Raiders to bring to your business once they’re installed in Las Vegas?
KORNEGAY: We’ve already seen it. You’re feeling the community rise to welcome this team. The Raiders are a very regional team, but I’ve personally witnessed it a few years back when they had a pretty decent season going and made the playoffs. During that season—well before they announced they were moving here—they were the biggest bet game on the board each and every week.
The Raiders are going to have such a huge impact on the city, not just the sportsbooks. It’s going to affect everything in a very positive way. You’re only talking about eight home games, but we expect a lot of fans from northern California, southern California and other parts of the country to travel here to watch their Raiders. So there will be a lot of people from neighboring states, not to mention the same effect we saw with hockey. Whether it was New York, Winnipeg or Vancouver, fans would tell us that as soon as that schedule came out they circled the Vegas games. We expect the same phenomenon with the Raiders.
How does your weekend audience break out between locals and visitors?
KORNEGAY: If you were to look at betting amounts, just over 80 percent is local. On football Saturdays and Sundays, it’s really close to 60/40 locals.
How would you describe the level of sophistication of your betting customers?
KORNEGAY: It’s still a very immature market. The entire U.S. market is immature but it’s only a matter of time. Other parts of the world have had sports betting for decades. The majority of the U.S. market has wagered through illegal channels and has a very simplified mindset. We’ve had mobile wagering for four-plus years and we’re still educating visitors that they don’t have to be a Nevada resident to open up an account. Obviously, patrons need to be present to open an account and can only access their account while they’re within Nevada borders. The point being, we’re still educating the general public.
What are you doing to get people to download the mobile app?
KORNEGAY: We have a huge marketing program that really emphasizes the sports betting app. We promote it and push it as often as we can with signage throughout the property. It’s on our digital displays, e-mail blasts, and social media platforms, etc. We try to push it wherever we can. I still to this day get a lot of guests saying to me, “Why didn’t I sign up for this sooner?”
There are still some who are reluctant to use it. They prefer that exchange, the trip to the window with cash and getting a physical ticket. But it’s a small percentage compared with those who have moved on and looked for convenience.
Can you share any data on usage?
KORNEGAY: We’ve been offering a mobile app for four-plus years now and it represents about 67 percent of our total handle. During weekday low-business levels, it can take you 20 seconds to personally place a bet at the counter. When we’re experiencing high-business levels during the weekends, it can take up to five to 20 minutes. The app puts the sportsbook right in the palm of your hand and you can complete that transaction in seconds.
What are your most popular in-play bets for football?
KORNEGAY: If it’s in-play, most patrons are wagering on the spread, moneyline or total. Then you have certain alternatives to split. Let’s say the Patriots are playing the Bills and they started out as a seven-point favorite. In-progress, you could have a number of alternative lines, anything from -3 to -20, with a moneyline attached to it, which we call an alternative “split line.” If they’re only up by three points and you want to lay 14, you’re going to get a good price on it.
How is sportsbook marketing structured at The Westgate?
KORNEGAY: The SuperBook is part of the overall marketing equation here. We have a marketing department that makes decisions and implements strategies for the entire property, along with our corporate headquarters in Orlando, Fla., they have input as well. Whatever marketing pieces are sent, I believe sportsbook input is vital to verify accuracy and the message.
Do you meet regularly?
KORNEGAY: We have a weekly marketing meeting. The landscape can change weekly and therefore a close working relationship is critical. We constantly communicate with them on promotions, offerings, upgrades or any other type of changes.
With the spread of sports betting we’ve seen an influx of new vendors and new betting solutions. What’s your take on that?
KORNEGAY: Going back to before PASPA was repealed, the Nevada market was very small so it wasn’t very attractive to vendors. Now, with PASPA overturned and the prospect of widespread sports betting across the country, we’re seeing a lot of new platforms being introduced to the market. There’s great technology, it’s just not molded to the American market yet.
Are there any solutions that stand out as interesting to you?
KORNEGAY: We’re keeping a close eye on it. When you look at these platforms coming from other parts of the world, they’re coming from very mature markets; places where people have been betting on sports in many different ways for decades. Some of the new bells and whistles that are out there are interesting and can become very popular. But most of the platforms I’ve looked at revolve around soccer, which is fine, but let’s just say I wanted to wager on the NFL—I have to go through multiple screens to get there. I think it should be on the forefront, right in front of the customer.
Technology here will mature as the market matures and we’ll get to that point where they’re as educated as other parts of the world. But for where we are right now, simplicity isn’t a bad option.