Cornhole, dogs, beer...and slots?

A side of blackjack with that Ravens tailgate? Casino tries to lure NFL fans

Long before Horseshoe Casino Baltimore opened in August, its operator studied the game-day habits of football fans in other cities — Cleveland, New Orleans, Cincinnati — where it runs casinos similarly situated near NFL stadiums.

So Caesars Entertainment Corp. knew how much Ravens fans would need their pregame cornhole games, big TVs, snacks and beer.

NFL season-ticket holders tend to be creatures of habit and — by providing them sustenance, bathrooms, cornhole, music and parking discounts — Horseshoe aims to become part of Ravens fans' ritual by mimicking the tailgate experience before and after games.

Attracting Ravens and Orioles fans is an important part of Horseshoe's game plan. The $442 million casino is not as big as its chief competitor, Maryland Live, which has nearly 70 percent more slot machines and a suburban feel adjacent to Arundel Mills mall. But Horseshoe is within walking distance of Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, which attracts more than 70,000 fans for Ravens home games and occasionally stages college football and other events.

When the Ravens are home, as they will be Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, fans stream past Horsehoe's entertainment plaza on the way to and from the stadium. Some fans patronize the outdoor bar or listen to live music from a stage.

Troy Warehime, a public school athletic administrator from Hampstead, and his wife, Julie, stopped to check out the plaza after an early-September game.

"We walked past this spot for years," said Warehime, a season-ticket holder wearing a Ravens jersey. "There used to be a crumbling parking lot here."

"You can see all the Ravens fans out here," said another fan, John Swiderski, gesturing toward purple-clad people mingling on the plaza with drinks in their hands.

But many other fans walked past the casino to their cars.

Attracting Ravens backers remains a work in progress, Chad Barnhill, Horseshoe's general manager, told Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control commissioners during a recent meeting.

"A lot of people have habits they've been in for a long time," he said in an interview.

To try to make fans feel at home, Horseshoe dealers wear jerseys on Sundays of their favorite NFL teams. While that is usually the Ravens, there is no rule against employees sporting logos of visiting teams or any other rival.

"I don't want to say there is trash talk going on, but it's a fun way to build relationships," said Noah Hirsch, the casino's vice president of marketing. "We're Baltimore's casino, but we're not going to alienate any city, any team. We're certainly not turning anyone away at the door."

Ravens season-ticket holders were invited before the season to purchase parking for $40 per game in the casino's 3,500-space garage, and hundreds accepted the offer, a Horseshoe spokesman said.

Parking, which is free on nonevent days, costs $60 on game days for others ($50 if paid in advance). The parking fee is waived if visitors spend $100 on food or beverages or earn 100 tier credits in the casino's rewards program by playing slots or table games.

M&T Bank Stadium is visible from many vantage points inside the casino.

NFL fans are a promising demographic for Horseshoe and other casinos, said James Karmel, a casino analyst and history professor at Harford Community College.

"I noticed they had a big day when Ohio State played Navy" at M&T Bank Stadium on Aug. 30, a few days after the casino opened, Karmel said.

Fans attending games usually have money to spend. Many NFL fans already engage in what could be interpreted as a variation of gambling — fantasy football. While organized gambling on sports is illegal in Maryland, fantasy sports are legal under most laws because they are considered skill-based rather than games of chance.

Terry Hasseltine, executive director of Maryland Sports, a state office charged with attracting sporting events, said Horseshoe could be a plus to sports fans.

"It adds to our portfolio of offerings, so we can offer a diverse experience to fans," Hasseltine said.

The NCAA doesn't hold championship events in states permitting legal betting on its sports. The presence of Horseshoe or other casinos would not affect Maryland's ability to host college championships because, Hasseltine said, there "is no sports wagering or projected sports wagering."

The Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency teams with the Ravens on scratch-off tickets in which the lottery uses the team's logo.

Maryland Live, the state's largest casino, also makes a big push for NFL fans on game days. Its offerings include a "football challenge" in which fans can win free slot play — and up to $1 million — for correctly picking the outcome of many games. The casino promotes watching Ravens and Washington Redskins games on a 270-inch screen in its Rams Head Center Stage venue.

Maryland's Live's revenue is more than double that of Horseshoe, which generated $22.5 million in October, its second full month of operation.

Hirsch previously worked in Cleveland, where the Horseshoe is within walking distance of the Browns stadium.

Caesars also has experience trying to attract local NFL fans at their properties in Cincinnati and New Orleans. Using its rewards programs as an incentive, Hirsch said the Baltimore casino hopes to attract visiting fans from those and other cities.

He said he knew Ravens fans would need time to acclimate to a potential new wrinkle in their game day routines.

"We're seeing the incremental week-over-week gains that we expected based on our experience in markets such as New Orleans, Cincinnati and Cleveland," Hirsch said. "We know from working in cities with professional sports teams that many fans have well-established game-day traditions, so introducing the casino as a new element of those customs is an ongoing process. We're making good headway."

jebarker@baltsun.com

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