“I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep”

January 22, 2023 8:02 PM
Photo: Rush Street Gaming
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports
January 22, 2023 8:02 PM
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports

Portsmouth, Virginia, has a casino; the Rivers is the first freestanding permanent casino in Virginia.

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Rush Street Gaming operates casinos in Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois under the Rivers brand. It takes sports bets under its own BetRivers brand. Rivers Casino Portsmouth had soft openings on January 19 and 21. Those days are just test runs; the official grand opening is Monday, January 23. During the soft openings, the profits go the charity, but for the media and gamblers, those days offered the first opportunity to look inside and to bet.

Rivers comes with a $340 million price tag. It has nearly 1,500 slot machines, 50-plus table games, and 24 poker tables. It also has the requisite restaurants and bars, plus an event center, a Topgolf Swing, and – a must for every casino in 2023 – a sports book, with 27 kiosks and a lounge with a gigantic monitor for watching the games. A hotel is promised, but is still unbuilt.

Whatever its amenities, the casino meets the city’s expectations. Mayor Shannon Glover says the city will collect more than $4 million dollars a year from the casinos. He says, “Those new tax revenue dollars are going to things that are critically important to our city … our schools, police and fire, and infrastructure.”

Of course, that is part of what sold the idea to lawmakers. In April 2020, while all casinos in the country were closed due to COVID, the Virginia legislature voted to approve casinos in five locations: Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth, Richmond, and Norfolk. Each city was allowed one casino, subject to the approval of voters. The issue was on the ballot in those cities in November 2020 and only Richmond voters rejected the idea. Each casino operator is required to invest a minimum of $300 million. By that measure, Rivers is just an ante.

It took slightly less than three years from the approval of the casino legislation to the opening of the first permanent casino. Three more are on the way. Hard Rock is building a casino in Bristol. It opened a temporary in July 2022 and intends to debut its permanent facility in 2024. Caesars is working on one in Danville, scheduled to open in 2024. The Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia is constructing its Headwaters Resort and Casino in Norfolk, expected to open in 2024, but a temporary will open sooner. One more casino is still possible. Richmond has tossed its hat in the ring again after vetoing a casino in 2021; city leaders now want a second opportunity to mine the casino gold.

Sports betting is already operational in Virginia. The state began taking mobile sports bets in January 2021 and in two years has booked $7.6 billion in wagers, generated $716.4 million in GGR, and paid $65 million in taxes. BetRivers claims the first permanent retail sports book in the state. There are also 2,600 historic racing machines in Virginia. In 11 months in 2022, the machines generated $4.1 million in GGR.

Fifty years ago, Virginia adopted “Virginia Is for Lovers” as a tagline. It is time to update that to “Virginia is for Lovers and Gamblers.” The gamblers of Old Dominion were on center stage during the events at Rivers Portsmouth.

Casinos have become almost a commodity. They can be found everywhere. But the opening of a new one usually generates considerable interest. The Rivers Portsmouth was no exception. The television cameras were rolling, onsite reports did play by play commentary, and gamblers stood eagerly in long lines waiting for the doors to open. One customer, La Treece Arthur, said, “I’m so excited to be here. I’m like a kid in the candy store. I couldn’t sleep last night.” She was not the only one, Penny Kmitt, a reporter for 6News, was just as excited.

Actually, Penny was more excited, almost to the point of quivering. The in-studio news team asked her if she had won or lost. She said, “I’m working. I can’t make a bet.” Then, she was eager to get back inside the casino, but not to play. Penny wanted to be inside and feel the excitement, the electricity in the air. She struggled to express how charged with excitement the atmosphere was and how eager she was to feel it. Penny admitted that on Monday, she would get a chance to return to Rivers and gamble a little. But for her, the excitement was the thing.

Penny hit on one of the hidden secrets of casino gambling. The atmosphere in a busy casino is thrilling. It may be due to the crowds of people packed closely together or the feeling of anticipation over the wagers being made. Whatever the reason, it is a fact. It is true especially on holidays, during special events, or as in Portsmouth during an opening.