Friday, September 7, 2012

Betting at the bowling alley?!

I don't know about you, amigos, but I'm finding this to be a little disturbing, with a portent for disaster.

We're coming up on the 40th anniversary of Off Track Betting (OTB) in New York. OTB came along right around the same time that we got cable in my part of the state, and so, OTB had its own channel in order to promote itself, for one thing, and provide viewers and potential customers with up-to-the-minute information on the action of the day.

A couple of years ago, OTB closed all of its parlors in New York City due to financial issues, but they still operate in other parts of the state. Now, however, one of those parlors is being downsized in a peculiar fashion.

While I was on vacation from my day job a couple of weeks ago, I happened to see a couple of placards promoting an auction at OTB's Downtown Troy location, in the Uncle Sam Atrium parking garage. OTB has been housed there since McDonald's left the city some years prior, leaving the mall proper, and, yeah, at that time they had engaged in a bit of downsizing, not just in the size of space, but also in hours of operation. No more being open late at night, running the risk of drawing in drunken patrons coming over from the neighborhood bars across the street. Most branches in my district close around 5:30-6:00 pm (ET) every day, which means if you wanted to wager on the evening harness cards, you had to either have a telephone account or, accounting for upgrades in this modern era, an internet account. A couple of nights later, as I waited for a bus to take me home from a Valleycats game, a friend told me that the downtown branch was closing, and moving into Uncle Sam Lanes, two blocks away.

This was met with a hearty SAY WHAT?

So I dropped into the branch one afternoon and chatted with the manager, who had just come back from maternity leave. She said that she was blindsided by the decision to close the branch. The landlord in charge of the garage is an old classmate of mine from high school who's become a very successful businessman. Apparently, the lease on the space was expiring, and OTB couldn't meet the price to renew the lease. Since Uncle Sam Lanes owner Tom Walsh, Jr. and/or some of his friends and regular patrons have been frequent patrons at OTB, it seems that a deal was struck to move OTB into the bowling establishment. The downside for OTB is that their new space is a hastily constructed kiosk where only one clerk will be on duty. The kiosk will close around the same time the branch has been of late, which prevents bowlers from distracting themselves by placing bets during league play.

There is, however, the potential for disaster. It's true that some bowlers are also gamblers. Like most bowling houses, Uncle Sam Lanes has a license to sell state lottery tickets, with the Numbers machine at the bar and two vending machines for scratch-off tickets. Oftentimes, the OTB channel can be seen on one of the many television sets in the building, especially during the Triple Crown series in May & June, during Saratoga season, and on the weekend of the Breeders' Cup. Where a problem arises is with that singular kiosk. One clerk facing a long line, especially on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, may be potentially overwhelmed by the volume of traffic and the impatience of some hardcore players who want to get their bets in before post time. I am not certain if there are going to also be self-serve machines to alleviate this possible problem. By self-serve, I mean that bettors can punch up their own tickets in a matter of seconds and save themselves----and the clerk---the hassle of a long line.

I seem to recall that across town at Alpha Lanes, they installed self-serve OTB betting machines some time back. I'm not sure if they still have them, but if they do, that might've been what spurred Tom Walsh, Jr. into making a business deal with OTB that would help both sides. In chatting with my friend, I could see what he was concerned with, that the non-bowling bettors might be causing potential problems, especially if overly inebriated. OTB has been open at Uncle Sam Lanes less than a week as I write, and so far, so good. I just don't know if this is something that has already been done elsewhere, but if it isn't, it could start a trend. A potentially bad one at that.

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