Penn National’s New QB Put All He Learned From Poker And Football Into A Challenging First Year

Jay Snowden's daunting debut as CEO has been highlighted by the launch of Barstool Sportsbook
Snowden stock exchange
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Six days ago, Penn National Gaming President and CEO Jay Snowden learned that two more of his casinos were about to be closed by a statewide Pennsylvania government order stemming from COVID-19.

As in Illinois, Michigan, and New Mexico, hundreds more of the young executive’s employees faced layoffs in shuttered properties ceasing to provide any revenue. For the second time this year, his first in charge of the company, Snowden was confronted with challenges none of his predecessors ever had to face.

Yet one day ago, Penn National announced a Maryland casino acquisition to ensure its Barstool Sportsbook will have a place in that new state market once regulations are complete.

It means more expansion. More investment. A widening berth in the hotly competitive online sports betting industry, to which Penn National is a latecomer — albeit a highly competitive, attention-snaring one.

The juxtaposed shutdown and expansion, while unrelated, serve as a microcosm for one of the most interesting but daunting first years on the job ever for a prominent new casino CEO.

Snowden, now 44, rose to Penn National’s top position Jan. 1. The former Harvard quarterback had been anointed months in advance by friend and mentor Timothy Wilmott as his successor in running the company, which operates 41 gaming properties in 19 states.

Looking back nearly 12 months later, Snowden can only chuckle at what he stepped into after spending two decades since his early 20s impressing those above and below him at Harrah’s/Caesars as well as Penn National.

“What a year — it’s been surreal, right?” he mused at the start of a 70-minute phone interview with US Bets last week. “You wake up and you just don’t know in 2020 what cards you’re going to be dealt every day, but you’ve got to make the best possible hand.”

Poker is in his blood

The poker allusion is unsurprising to those who know him. Snowden grew up as the son of a Las Vegas poker dealer. His mother, Terry Vanderlip, worked in casinos as a single parent raising two boys. Her own father had become a Vegas dealer after spending time as a professional poker player.

Before he was even school age, Snowden occasionally tagged along with his mother into casinos when she picked up a paycheck or met co-workers to go bowling. Her workplaces weren’t always glitzy, modern, casinos — one was the rather dingy, down-on-its-luck Lady Luck Downtown. To a 4-year-old boy, it might as well have been the Bellagio.

“He would hold my hand and walk real slow and all the time look at everything and be so amazed,” Vanderlip recalled. “All kinds of people would say hello to me, and he would think I’m like the queen, like, ‘Oh, Mom, everybody knows you!’”

Snowden remembers such encounters himself — the lights, the sounds, the joyful shouts of winners, the friendly way his mother interacted with patrons. He soaked it up, almost like mental notes being gathered as a curious, mesmerized boy’s future in the industry was foreshadowed.

And he had no problem learning poker from age 5, considering his bloodlines. It’s his favorite gambling avocation, still reconnecting with longtime friends while playing. It’s more than just a game to Snowden — he figures it’s helped sharpen his skills in other ways.

“There’s a lot of life lessons around the psychology of it and reading people — the development of social skills and critical thinking,” he explained. “I love the game.”

Quarterbacking brings life lessons, too

Snowden’s other main game — and preparation for a lot of what he’s accomplished, as he sees it — is football. He was a star at Clark High School in Las Vegas, and it won him a ticket he never would have received otherwise to Harvard.

It took a while for the working-class, public school teenager to fit in among his preppy Ivy League classmates, though he credits them and the institution with greatly broadening his horizons eventually. Regardless, he always had the football field and camaraderie with teammates as a refuge. The position he played was one that prepared him well for leading various teams he’s headed in the casino industry, including his current one.

“I reflect a lot on the life lessons I’ve gotten around teamwork and accountability and discipline” from football, especially quarterbacking, Snowden said. “You have to be nimble and agile and have to make quick decisions. You’re calling the plays, and you’re the one everyone’s looking at in the huddle, wondering what we’re doing.”

His clean, good looks are the kind a Hollywood casting director would want in their film’s football star. (They’re also the kind that prompted Cosmopolitan magazine to name him “Nevada’s Most Eligible Bachelor” at age 23 in 1999.) But it’s the temperament nurtured by Snowden’s athletic background that gets the attention of those who work with him.

Snowden instills “that sense of camaraderie that we’re a team,” said Eric Schippers, Penn National’s senior vice president of public affairs and government relations. Schippers has worked for the company since before Snowden arrived as a vice president of regional operations in 2011 and is one of seven senior executives who report directly to the CEO now.

“It’s been like the best of times and the worst of times since January,” Schippers said of what Snowden has confronted. “He looks at it like, ‘You’re my team, you’re my guys,’ and we’re all in it together and everyone has a complementary role to play.

“He’s had an incredibly steady hand at the helm. … It’s like being on a football team where you’re down and the clock is running out. The question is how do you carry yourself, because how you show signs of confidence means everything to the management team and rank-and-file. Jay’s set the right tone to make sure that we’ll not only get through this, but we’ll be stronger overall.”

Long a growth company, PNG keeps growing

Long headquartered in a suburb of Reading, Pa., where it began by operating one central Pennsylvania racetrack, Penn National’s story is one of achieving immense growth without attracting the same kind of public attention as the glitzier Caesars/Wynn/MGM corporate brands closely tied to Las Vegas.

The company has seen multiple rounds of expansion since going public in 1994, and Snowden was deeply involved in a key one: the $2.8 billion acquisition of Pinnacle Entertainment and 12 of its gaming properties in 2018.

Wilmott, the company CEO at the time, had already promoted Snowden to president and chief operating officer and had him oversee the Pinnacle integration.

By then, Wilmott saw the younger man as his heir apparent. That designation would be formalized in 2019, when Wilmott announced his pending retirement in his mid-60s.

“If I was going to leave, it was important to me that the company be in good hands,” said Wilmott, who wanted to ensure Penn National didn’t lose Snowden to a competitor. “He really understands how to work with people. He’s very humble, listens well to others, and doesn’t try to make a point of being the smartest guy in the room.”

Like his predecessors, Snowden is growth-oriented, but so much brick-and-mortar expansion was already accomplished by the time he took over: The company’s casinos, racinos, and racetracks stretch from Maine and Florida on the East Coast to a Southern cluster in Louisiana/Mississippi and Western operations in New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado, and the rest span a lot of middle America between all those.

The new frontier of interactive gaming, including mobile sports betting in the wake of the Supreme Court decision allowing it, thus has become the growth focus. Penn National spent many months before and after that May 2018 decision mulling how best to create an online sportsbook, assessing more than a dozen potential partners.

It took so much time that it fell behind fantasy sports titans DraftKings and FanDuel as well as other well-known brands like William Hill and BetMGM as state after state began legalizing, its home state of Pennsylvania among them.

And then a fairly stunning relationship — even friendship — formed that will inevitably make Penn National a key part of sports betting discussion and expansion in 2021 and henceforth, considering its sprawl across the continental U.S.

Snowden with Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini and founder Dave Portnoy

In Boston he became a Portnoy admirer

Snowden has had Boston connections ever since his Harvard days in the late 1990s — his wife is from there, and they make their home there, with him commuting weekly to Pennsylvania on commercial flights into Philadelphia.

So while strategizing about the future sportsbook operation with his team in 2019, he knew all about Boston-based Barstool Sports and its colorful, controversial founder, David Portnoy. Snowden was familiar with its meteoric growth, social media savvy, and appeal to young men and others who fit the sports betting demographic.

Snowden, a more earnest, self-deprecating type whom others say is neither brash nor irreverent himself, said he has long enjoyed reading and viewing Barstool Sports content for entertainment — most of the time. He might not always agree with everything expressed, including from the company’s notably non-politically correct front man, but he can tune out whatever he doesn’t like.

Snowden compares Portnoy’s popularity to the appeal legendary radio host Howard Stern held for a prior generation embracing edgy irreverence.

“There’s no denying that he is immensely talented and that he is a marketing genius,” he said of Portnoy. “This guy is off the charts intelligent and his instincts are amazing.”

Snowden’s sense of that was cemented in a Philadelphia meeting with Portnoy and Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini in July 2019 after others on Penn National’s management team had initial discussions with them. It just so happens that at the same time Penn National was sizing up potential partners, the Barstool Sports execs had themselves been meeting with various sports betting operators and looking for ways to monetize their brand.

Neither Penn National nor Barstool Sports connected with anyone else the way they did with one another.

Straight-shooter’s style appealed to Barstool

A quick bond that developed between the two companies’ executives led to the Jan. 29 announcement that Penn National was paying $163 million to acquire a 36% stake in Barstool Sports, and Barstool Sports would become the brand the gaming company used for its sportsbooks.

If Snowden was highly impressed by the omnichannel media company’s leaders, their perception of him was no different.

“We just liked Jay immediately,” Nardini said. “A straight shooter — honest, humble, curious about our business, open to our ideas. Honestly, after we had that meeting with him, we knew this was the fit.”

Penn National launched its Barstool Sportsbook app in its home state in September. In its first full month in October, it took $61 million in bets, kept $3 million as revenue, and claimed 13% of the wagering handle among 10 online sportsbooks in Pennsylvania.

Snowden said the launch met all of the company’s goals for downloads, registrations, and deposits. But he’s also well aware its betting volume was just one-half that of DraftKings in the state and one-third that of FanDuel.

“We want to be in the top three in market share everywhere we launch this app,” he said. “We came out of the gate No. 3 in Pennsylvania, so we achieved that goal, but are we going to be satisfied to be No. 3 forever? The answer is no.”

While the site carries the Barstool brand, it is Penn National’s staff that runs the operation under licensing by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. The odds used are from European-based Kambi, a supplier to numerous American sportsbooks, including DraftKings and BetRivers in many states now.

While Barstool Sports has no direct control over the sportsbook, it has the lead role in marketing it — attracting users through its various media content and personalities and saving Penn National the huge costs its competitors have to devote to broadcast advertising.

“Man, it’s turned out to be a better partnership than I even imagined,” Snowden said, anticipating the Barstool Sportsbook app next launching in Michigan by January and in Illinois in March. He expects it to debut later in 2021 in the other legalized mobile betting states in which Penn National has operations. Those include New Jersey, Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, West Virginia, Iowa, and Mississippi for now, and potentially Maryland and Louisiana after legislative action follows up on November referendums that authorized sports betting.

Reduced workforce is biggest regret

The early strength and anticipated future expansion of its Barstool Sportsbook is part of what has had Penn National’s share prices trading at an all-time high, above $80, in recent days.

Also, its focus on regional operations — though it does operate three Nevada casinos — has helped Penn National sustain revenue during the COVID crisis far better than the gaming companies reliant on Las Vegas properties.

But awareness of the difficulties experienced by many of the companies’ employees tempers his ability to celebrate successes like the stock price, Snowden said. One-third of the 26,000 employees on the payroll at the start of 2020 have not been brought back to work due to reduced operations, and others have suffered financial stress from temporary layoffs — including those now affected during the holidays by the closure orders in multiple states.

Thinking of them, Snowden remembers one of the role models in the industry who influenced him most, former Harrah’s executive Phil Satre. Snowden held various management positions at that company before joining Penn National nine years ago. He was floored by the amount of time Satre devoted at his top-level position to learning about his employees, remembering their names and conveying a sense that they were valued.

“People who spent time with Phil would tell you he was a master of motivation, and one way he did that was memorizing people’s names from their first interaction,” Snowden related. “I would watch him walk through a casino, talking to the slot attendant and the dealers and servers, and he’d maybe never even worked in the property.”

Wishes he’d had a COVID crystal ball

Snowden said he tries to emulate Satre’s ability to remember names and connect with everyone, but that he’s not yet as skilled at it. That sensitivity is a factor in caring beyond company stock prices and profits and ruing the harm this year to many working in the industry. He is proud, however, of a $4 million relief fund created at Penn National to assist those who have lost paychecks.

“It’s not a single one of those team members’ fault that they’re not with us,” Snowden said. He allowed that one of his big regrets of the year is failure to recognize earlier just how widespread the COVID pandemic’s toll was going to be on operations and the workforce.

“When COVID first hit, none of us really knew what was happening and what the impact was going to be. Was it a one-week issue, a one-month issue? And we all know now it’s going to be much longer than that.

“Looking back now, I think we could have done a better job of articulating within the company what the potential ramifications were going to be. I have desire in my job to have foresight and keep people motivated and be honest and transparent. … Had I known then what I know now, I would have been more guarded in my optimism.”

The quarterback’s positivity for 2021 stems not just from Barstool Sportsbook’s growth, but the prospect that widespread use of new COVID vaccines will ease the present fears about casino operations and visitation.

One thing that’s been reinforced over the past 11 months, however — if he didn’t know it well enough already — was to take nothing for granted. That includes the second wave of closures the company is navigating now, with the task made just a little easier from having already been through it in March.

And his approach to the future is driven in part by his greatest influencer of all — his mother — whom Snowden credits for instilling in him certain simple rules about working hard and treating others well, on the presumption those customarily lead to good decisions and results.

He hopes that will be the case for a broad but still-growing company he could lead for many years potentially — or considering his age, even multiple decades.

“We’re prepared for anything right now,” Snowden said after everything in 2020. “We’ve become really hardened to challenges and bad news. You just kind of roll with it and figure out what we can control and what we’re doing about those things, and if you stay focused on that, you stay grounded.”

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