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Circa Sports Gearing Up For Entry Into Illinois Sports Betting Scene


It’s not so much that the third state is the charm for Derek Stevens as Circa Sports continues its expansion since entering the sports wagering space in Las Vegas in late 2020. Rather, Stevens’ confidence surrounding Circa’s entry into Illinois — after setting up shop in both Colorado and Iowa — stems from this being precisely the large-market fit he has sought.

“We believe the blend of a retail book with an online app throughout a state in circumstances makes a lot of sense, and based upon the location, we thought this was a scenario where all the stars aligned,” Stevens told Sports Handle as he described Circa’s partnership with Full House Resorts to operate its retail sportsbook in Waukegan. The city is approximately 45 miles north of Chicago and 20 miles from the Wisconsin state line.

“If it would’ve been a casino in a different location within Illinois or, for example, a casino maybe in a different state, it wouldn’t have all matched up,” he said.

“But with the population base in Waukegan, metropolitan Chicago, and southern Wisconsin, having a retail book is going to greatly enhance our ability to grow our Circa Sports brand throughout the state. We thought this would be a better outcome for the type of business we have.”

Should construction and licensing for the temporary facility adhere to the current timeline, Full House Resorts’ temporary casino, aptly named The Temporary by American Place, would open this fall, with the all-important NFL season serving as a potential springboard. It would then be an additional 12 to 24 months before Full House opens its full gaming venue, American Place.

While Iowa and Colorado are not small markets when it comes to generating handle — the two states have generated more than $10 billion between them — Illinois marks Circa’s first foray into a top-five state. The Land of Lincoln has totaled more than $11.4 billion worth of wagers since its March 2020 launch and had its biggest handle in March with more than $970 million.

Wanting the retail and mobile combination

Waukegan is part of “Casino 2.0” in Illinois. It is one of six locations awarded a casino license by Gov. JB Pritzker in June 2019 when he signed a massive gaming expansion bill into law that also legalized sports wagering. Full House is in line to be second among the six to open a temporary casino, with Hard Rock first in Rockford last November.

The Waukegan area gives Circa a sizable population pool for potential retail success. Lake County has nearly 700,000 people and is the third-densest county in Illinois, with more than 1,500 people per square mile. As of 2020, it had a median annual income of nearly $39,000 that is 10% higher than Cook County, which includes Chicago.

The southeastern Wisconsin counties of Racine and Kenosha swell the population total to nearly 1.1 million without including Cook County. Additionally, the closest in-state sports betting option for those Wisconsin residents is a trip to Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee, with no avenue for mobile betting that Circa can also leverage.

The gaming expansion bill allowed for Circa to apply for one of the state’s three online-only sports wagering licenses, but that route was one Stevens did not think was best for Circa. His group formally submitted its respective license applications for retail and mobile wagering Monday to the Illinois Gaming Board.

“One of the things we had thought about with the online opportunity in Illinois — one of the things we thought about in the back of our mind — was we thought that if we had an opportunity to do something where we could build a substantial retail book in Illinois, that would be a more optimal outcome,” he explained. “We had been in discussions with Full House, and when they landed the Waukegan license, we thought it would be better for us to focus down that path.

“We’re pretty excited about them having the ability to have a temporary casino, but then building this great ground-up casino, we thought that would be a more optimal scenario for Circa Sports.”

Of note is Stevens and Circa opting for Illinois rather than New Jersey or New York. He pointed out Circa’s business model of taking large wagers with no limits and low holds is not conducive in a state with a 51% tax rate. He wondered if “anyone’s model is optimal for New York” and said Circa opted to stay away from the Empire State since it was not a good match.

Aligning with Full House Resorts

Large wagers and no limits, though, looks to be the type of wagering Full House Resorts was promoting to the Illinois Gaming Board when CEO Dan Lee made his pitch for the Waukegan license. Lee offered a vision of high-end clientele making their way to a casino with a helipad, 20-room mansion, and more than 1,600 slots and 100 table games in addition to what Circa will showcase as its sportsbook.

Talks between the two sides revealed a common vision of sorts, and Stevens’ acumen as a casino owner in addition to sportsbook operator provided further comfort in the burgeoning partnership.

“When we first started talking with Full House, it’s like a business meet-up,” Stevens recounted. “Both parties are interviewing the other party trying to understand what’s important to the other party. I asked a lot of questions: What is the end goal? What’s the interim goal with The Temporary? What are your general thoughts on Illinois? Where do you see the market going? And then they asked me a lot of questions.

“If you’re interested in aligning with someone who’s going to bring people into the property where you’ll have ancillary benefits of slots revenue, table revenue, and things like that, I think we’re the right choice. … I might be a little bit different from a sportsbook perspective because I also own and run my casino. This is the way we’ve designed this, and things like that, and it matches up. And with what you’re doing, it matches up with what we’re doing and what we want to do.”

Making Circa’s presence known

Stevens said lessons taken from Circa’s entries into Colorado and Iowa were applied to its impending entrance in Illinois. Each go-through “has helped us in our thought process and our designs for Illinois quite a bit,” he added. Circa does not expect, however, to emulate the large-scale advertising in which operators burned through endless amounts of cash for TV time in the third-largest market.

Stevens, who hails from Michigan, holds to some of that Midwest sensibility that “more” can occasionally be “too much.”

“When I throw on the local news, you have a total of 10 commercials and nine of them are sportsbooks and they’re really coming after you. I’m just saying for me as a consumer there’s a certain element of annoyance,” he said. “From a consumer perspective, you kind of get to the point where you get saturated and overwhelmed. For myself from a business perspective of being in this business, it really makes me wonder about the actual return you’re getting.

“Clearly there’s going to be some diminished returns because of the saturation. TV may not be the biggest component for us compared to what others have seen, but we’ve got some tricks up our sleeve and I don’t think we’re going to hammer the airwaves like you’ve seen from other companies.”

Illinois-specific NFL Survivor pool coming?

Upon its Las Vegas opening, Circa grabbed the spotlight as home to one of the top NFL survivor pools in the U.S. and paid out $11 million in prizes for the past season, including a $1,000 contest that drew more than 4,000 entries. Circa is already aiming bigger for the upcoming season, re-upping the $6 million first prize as part of $12 million in guaranteed payouts.

Given its popularity coupled with a rabid NFL fan base in Illinois — overall football handle independent of parlay wagers totaled $1.3 billion in 2021, and another $60.5 million was wagered on the Super Bowl — it would make sense to offer such a product in the Midwest. It is something on the radar, but also something that requires more than a few hoops to jump through to bring to life.

“We’re certainly not going to be ready this year, and by the time we would come to having an internal meeting about that, I know there’s going to be far more development in that thought process,” Stevens said. “For 2023, the only truthful answer I can give you, and it’s not a sexy answer, is I don’t know.”

Survivor pool or not, Stevens is ready for Circa to hit Illinois. He has enjoyed watching college football Saturdays be the primary driver of wagering in Iowa and NFL Sundays perform likewise in Colorado. Illinois, he figures, has a chance to cover all the bases.

“I certainly can’t say we know the Illinois market, but I certainly think we’re prepared to go real heavy,” he said. “Illinois will be heavy in everything, it’s big enough, but we’ll see a lot of action in baseball. Each market is a little bit different and regulatory setups help give guidance on where you’re going to offer some of the alternate wagers, where you start seeing development of props. For us, it’s a new challenge and we’re excited by it.”

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