Place your bets? Rivers Casino expects sports betting in time for March Madness

Each machine at the lucrative Rivers Casino in Des Plaines generates more revenue than gambling terminals at other casinos in the country, Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Rivers parent company Churchill Downs, said Thursday.

It may be why the casino recently launched 24/7 operations, is ready to start taking bets on sports as soon as the NCAA March Madness tournament, and is drawing up building expansion plans for more slots and table games as well as an adjoining hotel.

During a quarterly earnings call with investors Thursday, Churchill officials reported strong earnings growth thanks to their 61% equity investment in Rivers that was executed last March.

What made that investment potentially more valuable, Carstanjen said, is the gambling expansion bill approved by Illinois lawmakers last June that allows the casino to expand from 1,200 gambling positions to 2,000.

The casino already has added 131 new positions, including 115 slot machines on the skywalk from the parking garage to the casino and near the front entrance, and eight new table games.

Rivers also is in the final stages of completing expansion plans to house the remaining 670 positions, said Carstanjen, adding that more details would be revealed in April.

A Churchill spokesman said those plans would include an array of amenities as part of an expanded gambling floor, and an on-site hotel. Talk of a possible expansion has been floated since the casino opened in 2011. Already, construction has begun on a parking garage addition.

Last week, the casino started its 24/7 gambling operations - which was also granted under the new state law. Previously, the casino was open 22 hours a day.

And in December, the BetRivers SportsBar opened within a 4,840-square-foot space just off the gambling floor, with plans for it to become an official sports wagering venue in March, Carstanjen said.

Rivers is currently working with the Illinois Gaming Board on getting final regulatory approvals, and is "optimistic" the sportsbook will be open in time for the March Madness college basketball tournament in mid-March, Churchill's spokesman said.

Two other casinos, Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin and Argosy Casino in downstate Alton, have also applied for sports wagering licenses authorized by the new state gambling law.

During his budget address last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker lent more credence to bettors' hopes that they'll be able to wager soon, saying sports betting "appears on track to be up and running in time for March Madness."

Churchill has seen early positive returns from its other brick-and-mortar sportsbooks at casinos in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, Carstanjen said.

"We really, really like the retail sports betting ... since the cost of acquisition of the customer base within the casino is nominal compared to the cost of reaching potential customers in the online space," Carstanjen told analysts. "The margins are very good. So we like that and we'll do as much of that as we can."

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