Five decades ago, Johnny Avello's dream of a career in the gambling industry prompted him to leave the Hudson Valley and relocate to Las Vegas.
At that time, he couldn’t have imagined a day when his home state would be so open to betting — let alone allowing it to be accessible on a handheld device.
“Never,” said the Poughkeepsie native, who was inducted last year into the Sports Betting Hall of Fame. “New Yorkers have always been savvy about sports betting, but there had always been a stigma around it. I always thought Las Vegas would have the grip on sports wagering.”
But that figurative palm no longer is clasped. In recent years, it's been opened and extending its reach.
New York on Jan. 8 became the 18th state to legalize online sports betting. The New York State Gaming Commission approved four mobile app-based sports books to take wagers from what figures to be a major national market.
People who watch television regularly have already been inundated with Caesars Sportsbook commercials.
“It’s hugely popular; I can tell by the numbers we did over the first weekend,” said Avello, a longtime Vegas oddsmaker who now is the head of sportsbook operations for DraftKings, one of the apps approved for use in New York. “We opened up with the two NFL games that Saturday and New York was one of the top states for handle.”
The following day, a game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders, a regular-season finale in which the last playoff berth was determined, “was one of the top five betting games overall this year,” Avello said in advance of this past weekend's playoff games.
He attributed much of the spike to an influx of wagers coming from New Yorkers who long had wanted to make bets from the comfort of their home, and others who might’ve simply been drawn to the novelty.
“This year’s NFL playoff (gambling) numbers are probably going to break records,” Avello said. “And I think every year to follow, we’ll surpass that, because it continues to grow.”
DraftKings, along with Caesars, FanDuel and Rush Street Interactive, were the first online sports betting services allowed to operate in New York, but Avello is certain there soon will be more.
To that, he said, “Competition is a good thing.”
Next step in growth
Four casinos were constructed in 2013 in upstate New York, and a 2018 Supreme Court ruling permitted sports betting at those locations, lifting a longstanding federal statute that relegated sports betting primarily to Nevada.
Since New Jersey opened to online wagering in 2018, there had been suggestions — if not a clamoring — for its neighboring state to follow suit. The state gaming commission approved regulations for sports betting last June, which got the ball rolling.
“Had New Jersey not pushed hard to get it then,” Avello said, “New York might still not have it.”
The state gaming commission announced nine conditionally licensed Mobile Sports Wagering Operators in November. The remaining five are working toward satisfying the statutory and regulatory requirements necessary to launch. They’ll be approved on a rolling basis when requirements are met, the commission said earlier this month.
There are some restrictions here, one of which is bettors being barred from placing wagers on in-state college teams. It might be tempting for a New York resident to make some bets involving the Syracuse University men’s basketball team during the NCAA tournament, for example, but that won’t be permitted. Similar rules apply to New Jersey.
There is a financial benefit for the state in giving this go-ahead, of course. The sports books will have 51% of their gross revenue taxed in New York, which will be the highest rate in the U.S. Some projections figure that within a few years, New York could generate more than a billion dollars annually in gambling revenue.
“I think some of the states may have wanted to do this for a long time, but there’s been a perception that gambling is shady, or it taints sports,” Avello said.
Sports and gambling have quietly been intertwined for more than a century, and it’s no longer taboo. Several professional teams have inked sponsorship deals with online betting companies in recent years, including the NFL's New York Giants partnering with DraftKings.
“It’s great entertainment for people,” Avello said, “and I think within the next five years, almost all of the states will be on board.”
'A celebration in our minds'
Avello, 69, always had an interest in gambling, influenced early by watching his parents make bets on horse races at Saratoga Springs. The Poughkeepsie High School graduate moved to Las Vegas in 1976 to become a craps dealer, first taking a job that paid $12 a day.
He eventually transitioned into odds-making and was renowned, becoming a longtime sportsbook manager at Bally’s and later the director of race and sportsbook at the Wynn, one of the premier luxury hotels and casinos in Las Vegas. He worked there until October 2018 and had been planning to retire before Matt Kalish, one of the founders of DraftKings, recruited him to join their company, which soon would take off.
Now, after 46 years out west, he is among the people helping to bring a sampling of the Vegas experience to New Yorkers. Well, to their smartphones, more specifically.
“I’m very happy about this and it’s exciting,” Avello said. “With a digital application, there wasn’t an opportunity for a ribbon cutting or a celebration when the first bet was placed, but there was definitely a celebration in our minds.”
Stephen Haynes: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4.
This article originally appeared on Poughkeepsie Journal: Online sports betting 'hugely popular' in NY, says DraftKings head