Before Thursday, in the small mountain town of Cherokee, it’s hard to imagine people caring much about a play-in NCAA Tournament game between two 16-seeds, Texas Southern and Mount St. Mary’s.

But here they were Thursday night, and as the close game wound down and it became clear Texas Southern would win, a group of about a dozen men started celebrating inside Harrah’s Cherokee Casino’s new sports gambling room, The Book. A middle-aged balding guy in a navy blue golf shirt stood up in front of the 90-foot TV, whooped it up, did a little dance and fist-bumped his friend.

For the rest of the night, several dozen men in red recliners watched other riveting basketball games — such as Drake vs. Wichita State — as a ticker updated the scores of baseball spring training games in Arizona and provided the final scores from La Liga, a Spanish pro soccer league.

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So went the first night that legal sports betting was available in North Carolina. After years of planning and securing the proper government approvals, Harrah’s on Thursday opened new sports books in Cherokee, three hours west of Charlotte, and in Murphy, an additional hour west.

The opening of sports betting in the N.C. mountains is sure to draw sports fans and additional gamblers from Charlotte, Atlanta, eastern Tennessee and elsewhere to this small town of 2,000 residents that sits on tribal lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Driving into Cherokee, the town doesn’t look like much. There are a couple big pawn shops, a tattoo parlor and mobile homes. But then you quickly see the massive and still-growing casino complex built tastefully along a creek. It has 1,108 rooms, which typically go for $500+ on the weekends, and is adding an additional 725 in an addition expected to be complete this year. Since the casino opened in1997, a tourist industry has grown up around it, with new hotels and restaurants.

If you’re expecting a small and depressing mountain-town casino, this isn’t it.

Are there elderly people with vacant looks tapping repeatedly on video slot-machine screens? Yes. Is the 160,000 square feet of slots and table games dark and a little loud? Yes.

Just Like Vegas?

But there are also some nice restaurants, clothing boutiques, jewelry shops — and now, a sports book. General manager Brooks Robinson told The Ledger he believes Harrah’s Cherokee Casino now offers the complete package.

“We are really right on par with any casino in Vegas,” he said. “I truly believe we could set this resort on the Las Vegas Strip, and we could compete with anybody — the number of hotel rooms, the number of slot machines, table games and now with the sports book, we just have everything available to our customers.”

He says the addition of sports gambling should attract a younger crowd. Charlotte is the second-largest customer base for the casino, behind only Atlanta, which is also about three hours away. “The Charlotte market is definitely a market that we believe is continuing to grow,” Robinson said. The casino signed a five-year sponsorship deal in 2019 with the Carolina Panthers.

First Bet On UNC

After tribal officials cut the ribbon at 10 a.m., the first legal sports wager in the state was placed by Matt Linsky of the Atlanta area — a frequent casino visitor. He bet $100 that UNC would beat Wisconsin and that the total number of points would be 134 or more (a combination bet known as a “parlay”). “I thought it would be an appropriate bet for the casino and the state,” he told The Ledger afterward.

Thinking about checking it out at some point? Here’s what you need to know:


  • Regular: 45 red pseudo-leather reclining chairs that are first-come, first-served. (60 seats in non-COVID times)
  • Premium: Three premium “Fan Caves” available with 85-inch TV and gaming console that seat 5, starting at $200 (more during peak events). “The Upper Deck” elevated seating, starting at $100 for five.

Ledger’s take: Comfortable seats that rock backward a little, but you can’t prop up your legs and stretch out. Grade: B+.

None available in the sports book, and you are not permitted to bring food into the sports book. The casino and hotel complex have a food court with Johnny Rockets, Uno’s Express Pizzeria, Earl of Sandwich, Dunkin’ Donuts; plus two cafes, a noodle bar, BRIO Tuscan Grille and Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Ledger’s take: If you can’t eat nachos or wings at a sports book, that’s a missed opportunity. The ban on all food feels hostile to the proposition of sitting and watching sports for hours on end. Grade: D.

Cocktail servers wander through, although the service can be hit-or-miss. There are no free drinks for bettors. There’s a conveniently located bar. Prices are reasonable by Charlotte standards, like $6 for a Tanqueray gin and tonic and $4 for a bottle of an IPA. Limited selection of liquor; a handful of national and N.C. mountain beers on tap.

Ledger’s take: The slight disappointment in no free drinks while betting is soothed by inexpensive drink prices. Don’t expect a smoking craft cocktail with artisanal ice — this isn’t South End. Grade: B.

Wide range of bets available on Caesars network. On Thursday, bets were available on basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, football, UFC, boxing, tennis and Australian rules football — including futures and prop bets, such as guesses about the order of April’s NFL draft and how many No. 1 seeds will reach the Final Four. Self-serve kiosks and in-person windows available. Some of the clerks seemed a little overwhelmed on the first day, but maybe that’s to be expected.

Sample odds:

  • Panthers 60-1 to win Super Bowl.
  • Hornets 300-1 to win NBA Championship.

Ledger’s take: Surprisingly large variety of bets available. Do you really want to bet on the quarterfinals of tennis’ Mexican Open just because you can? No horse racing yet, but that’s no big loss, right? Grade: A-

A 90-foot TV, typically broken into three screens, with each able to be divided to show four games at once if needed. There are screens with betting odds to the right and left of the sports.

Ledger’s take: Some bellyaching Thursday night about which games were being shown on what screens, but that might be par for the course. Solid viewing experience overall. Grade: A.

About 95% of the people there Thursday night were men of varying ages — sometimes boisterous, mostly friendly. A pleasant place to watch a game. There’s no smoking. Mask requirements were enforced. Betting and bar lines were short, but as word spreads that this is open, it could get crowded.

Ledger’s take: If you can’t spend all day inside a casino, you’re close to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

WFAE 90.7