Derek Stevens, Circa Sports CEO

"We felt that there was so much momentum with Circa Survivor that we could push it a little bit more"

Reading time 6:20 min

"I think every sportsbook brand has a different specialty," Derek Stevens, CEO of Circa Sports, tells Yogonet. In the case of the Nevada-based sports betting operator, Circa has made a name for itself by taking larger bets and welcoming the sharp bettors, in addition to being home to the biggest physical sportsbook in the world at Circa Resort & Casino in Downtown Las Vegas.

But another Circa Sports staple that has brought attention to Stevens' brand is its contests. Last year, Circa's pro football contests Circa Million and Circa Survivor gave away $12 million in prizes, and while that figure was impressive in itself, the sportsbook is going bigger than ever for their new edition, upping the pool by $2 million for their largest payout ever of $14 million for the 2023-2024 season.

In conversation with Yogonet, Stevens discusses the keys behind the record-setting contests and their impact on the Circa brand, talks about the sportsbook expanding to Illinois and provides insights on the evolution of sports betting five years after the PASPA repeal.

Circa's two pro football contests are returning with a payout of 14 million. What can you tell us about Circa going big for these new editions?

Last year we guaranteed $12 million and that brought a lot of people to our properties. This year, we felt that there was so much momentum with Circa Survivor that we could push it a little bit more. We increased the payout for Circa Survivor from $6 million to $8 million, and kept Circa Millions at $6 million, so that's how we get to the $14 million.

Both of the contests will be the largest football contests in history, and we're just excited about the continuous improvement and growing it. I'm getting more excited about how the contests are getting a bit more publicity, both nationally and internationally, drawing attention from Canada, Mexico and Europe... We had a winner from Dubai a year ago, so it's great to see more international coverage.

As these contests keep gaining attention and breaking records, would you say they have become a defining aspect of the Circa brand?

I would say that football contests have become a very important thing for us. It was only five years ago that we started with a contest, and we felt at the time that we needed to put a guarantee out there because we were a new company; no one had heard of us. What we did is that we guaranteed $1.5 million in our first year, and when you think about it, it was a little bit crazy. But I think it was important that we guaranteed a payout because that gave it more credibility.

When you add that to Circa having the world's largest sportsbook and things like that, it allowed us a good foundation to grow. Now the football contests have become a very important part of our business because now in the month of June, and in July and August, they give a very specific reason for the contest entrants to come to Las Vegas and visit one of our properties, whether it's the Golden Gate, the D or Circa. We are seeing many people turning this into a holiday as part of the signup process.

What we're hoping for is that both contests go over the guarantees. What is unique about both Circa Millions and Circa Survivor is that any entrance fees that go over the minimum go back into the prize pool. Circa doesn't take any rake or any commission out of the prize pool; it 100% goes back to the participants. Our whole thing really is that we want people to come and visit our properties.

Since the first edition took place, a few years have gone by. Both the sports betting industry and Circa have changed since that time. What space would you say Circa occupies within that growing market now?

I think every sportsbook brand has a different specialty. What is unique about Circa is that we take larger bets; we don't limit professional bettors and we don't limit bettors that win. We work with them and we learn from their information.

That has really allowed us to take a continued growing role in the leadership of the market when it comes to the number that's out there. I think there are a lot of people that when they take a look at a point spread, or they look at the odds of a game or something along those lines, they want to know where the Circa number is.

Circa's home market is, of course, Nevada, but the company has expanded into new states over the last few years. Now, an Illinois launch plan is in target for August, which would be in time for the NFL. What are your expectations for this new market?

In Illinois, we are opening up in the American Place Casino. It is located in Waukegan, a suburb of Chicago, so northern Illinois. They have opened up as a very large temporary casino, which will be open as a temporary property for about three years. We've already built the sportsbook, and we'll be ready to open it as soon as the licensing comes through.

In the permanent casino, construction begins at the end of the year. We'll have that component of the design of the long-term permanent sportsbook inside the permanent casino. For us right now, we're in the process of hiring people that will work in the Illinois jurisdiction. We have a number of them that are here now in Las Vegas, and they are going through training.

We will be prepared to launch as soon as possible, and we hope to launch in August. Obviously, in the US when football season starts, that's when people really like to get going, so certainly the timing would be very beneficial if we're able to open up at the end of August. It could be a little bit later, but we hope to launch as soon as we can.

Now turning to the sports betting industry at large, last month was the fifth anniversary of the US Supreme Court's decision to overturn the federal ban on sports betting. Has the sports betting industry advanced in the way you expected over the last five years?

What we are seeing is a continued evolution. Every state is coming with some similar regulations, but each state also has its own nuances that are a bit different. I think the way things are playing out, we're starting to get to the next generation from a jurisdictional perspective. You've got certain states such as Tennessee and Montana that are now getting to their second generation of a regulatory environment.

I think things are playing out the way a lot of people thought. But obviously, when you have such a new industry, there are always going to be some elements that are unintended. We've seen a bit about that. I'm a little bit surprised at the volume of advertising that takes place in some of the newer jurisdictions, and some of the number of free bets.

It just comes down to how different companies value different models. I'd say that maybe that's a little bit of a surprise compared to what I thought three years ago. But overall, things have kind of rolled out pretty smoothly when you look at how volatile things could have gone.

Circa Las Vegas' massive sportsbook, billed as the world's largest

Circa definitely has a model of its own and its own set of strong points. What markets could present an opportunity for expansion, based on those terms, going forward?

Right now, our focus is all on Illinois and opening up there, which is one of the biggest states in the US. But certainly, we've got our eyes open and we've had a number of conversations with different operators and different states as well. Our goal has really never changed. We'd like to grow in a number of other states; it just has to be in a state where the regulatory environment matches up with our business model.

That means a state where it would be a lower tax type of situation because we run a lower hold model. We run a model where there's more benefit to the consumer. So that's a type of model that wouldn't work in, for example, the state of Tennessee or New York. But it would certainly work in states like Illinois and Kentucky and others.

Lastly, another recent Circa news that is exciting for those very passionate about sports betting is the upcoming launch of the Sports Gambling Hall of Fame in August, within Circa's massive sportsbook. What should we expect of the space once it opens?

We're very excited. We worked with an industry legend, Spanky, who helped us create this idea. We had space behind the sportsbook and we were able to carve out some space and we've gone through design. Then we had a group that put together the Sports Betting Hall of Fame committee, and they elected an initial class.

We're excited to have this as something great to visit when you come to Circa, when you come into our sportsbook. I'm sure everyone's going to want to go in and take a look at some of the plaques and read a little bit of the history of some of the legendary people that were in this industry and really paved the way for sports betting.

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