Circa Sports launched in Illinois on Sept. 29, becoming the state’s eighth online sportsbook. The company – known for its massive Las Vegas sportsbook and burgeoning online product – earned a license with Full House Resorts, which owns the Temporary by American Place Casino in Waukegan.
Illinois is Circa’s fourth sports betting market, following Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.
After a month operating in The Land of Lincoln, CEO Derek Stevens says Circa is continuing to carve its niche in a highly competitive state.
Circa had specific reasons why it chose Illinois over other states
Circa’s launch in September made it the eighth Illinois online sports betting app available to bettors. ESPN Bet is expected to join the party next week, followed by Hard Rock Bet soon after.
Illinois was Circa’s first dual launch, bringing both an online sportsbook and a retail book to the state in quick succession. Circa Sports Illinois has bolstered the launch by running various events in the state to drive sign-ups and drum up interest in the newest sports betting platform.
The process to get here wasn’t easy, Stevens told PlayIllinois. Many dominoes had to fall before the company could launch in Illinois.
“We first had to cut a deal with Full House Resorts, which owns the casino license in Waukegan. Then, we had a good year and a half of licensing. And Illinois in particular has a very thorough regulatory process. But once you get through it, everything set up for you to succeed.”
That was the key reason Circa saw value in Illinois, Stevens said. He emphasized that population isn’t the end-all, be-all for prospective sportsbook operators. It certainly helps, but the state regulatory framework also plays a big role, he said.
“Our approach is oriented around what the potential regulatory environment is going to be. We felt like Illinois would make our investment more worthwhile than some other states could. We operate on a low-hold model, and that wouldn’t work in every state.”
Hold is the percentage of placed wagers a sportsbook keeps after all wagers on a given market have been settled. Stevens named a few states that didn’t fit what Circa was looking for. New York’s 51% tax rate is “pretty ridiculous,” he said. However, Tennessee served as his prime example. The state put a minimum hold percentage in place, Stevens said.
“It’s more than double the hold percentage of our whole business. So, it wouldn’t make sense for us. It’s a state where you have to focus on things like same game parlays or betting products with 12% to 15% hold.”
The confluence of all these factors – a license partner in Waukegan, a low-hold-friendly regulatory environment and a strong existing sports betting market – made Illinois an easy choice for Circa, Stevens said.
Finding a place in a crowded market
While the regulations and overall market structure helped Circa, it still has to contend with a major challenge: carving out an audience in a state where seven other sportsbooks have been operating for years.
Stevens acknowledged the challenge, but he sees Circa as a refreshing change of pace for Illinois bettors. It isn’t trying to be a player’s only sportsbook.
“There’s not any one sportsbook that is best for all. They have different characteristics and suit different people. Some sportsbooks have massive menus with a lot of overseas lines, which pleases players who like global sports. Other bettors might want more focus on American sports or place bigger wagers.”
Stevens likens sportsbooks to eateries. There’s something for every palate.
“In any town, you might have at least 15 or 20 different types of restaurants. It doesn’t mean one is better than the next. You’ll have a fish place, a steakhouse, Italian, Mexican, Chinese … no single cuisine beats out the rest. It’s the same for sportsbooks. The diversity means customers can decide for themselves.”
Stevens doesn’t expect bettors to make Circa their only sportsbook.
“Make sure you have multiple sportsbook apps on your phone. Prices are different at every sportsbook.”
Stevens is confident that Circa can compete in The Prairie State.
“We focus on giving value every single day. We’re not the sportsbook that will make a ‘deposit $20, get $100 in free bets’ offer. That’s a model for high-hold percentage books. We run a low-hold model to provide bettors with value day-in and day-out. We think that value proposition is better in the long run.”
Circa invites people to check out its retail sportsbook
While it’s easy to focus on the new online sportsbook, there’s also a new retail option for Chicagoland bettors, Stevens said. The Temporary by American Place Casino in Waukegan is now home to a Circa Sportsbook.
“It’s all housed inside a tent. But when you’re in it, you’d never know. You’d think you’re walking through the Bellagio. It’s a gorgeous place with great restaurants. Just terrific. Circa Sports is on one of the ends of the property. We’ve got a TV wall, food and beverage options. It’s a great place to get in on the action.”
Building the sportsbook required careful collaboration with the Waukegan casino. Circa brings a lot of expertise from its flagship Vegas sportsbook and various satellite locations. By taking up a full wing of the casino, Circa has created what Stevens calls “a perfect place to catch any game.”
The hard work has just begun
Even though it took years to bring Circa to Illinois, Stevens believes it’s only the beginning. Licensing, software development and launch are all difficult, but that’s not the most difficult part, he said.
“Sports betting is still in its infancy as an industry. Launching is tough, but it’s a one-time deal. Operating and running your sportsbook in the long term, on the other hand, is far more challenging.”
Stevens and Circa have now set their sights on building an audience in Illinois. Launch events in Chicago Peoria and other cities are on the docket (and many have already occurred). Legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher is helping Circa at some events, too.
And with the cold months just beginning in Illinois, Stevens urged Midwestern folks to take a trip west this winter.
“I grew up in the Midwest, and we designed Circa Las Vegas essentially with Midwesterners in mind. It’s open 365 days a year, and 335 of those are sunny and warm. If anyone needs a break from that January or February Midwestern winter, we’d love to see you in Las Vegas. And in the meantime, maybe download the Circa Sports app in Illinois before you come out to see us.”