Las Vegas the epicenter of madness

16 March 2012

LAS VEGAS. Nevada -- There was a time when Greg Devitt of California had to wake up at 3:30 a.m. just to secure a seat in the Caesars Palace sports book to watch the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

One year, he didn't tell his friend, Doug Roberts of New York, that sleeping in the sports book was frowned upon, especially at that time of morning.

"I kept on getting kicked awake by my friends every time security walked by," Roberts recalled.

That was back in the 1990s.

Today, the two friends, along with Kevin Frank of Cincinnati, command a spacious booth at Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa, complete with its own television monitor and unobstructed view of the sports book's multiple large television screens.

They won't leave that booth for much of the weekend.

"We won't see sunlight for a few days," Frank said.

March Madness, the term used to describe the annual NCAA Tournament, has a much different meaning in Las Vegas.

Resort operators and sports book directors say the first weekend of 48 basketball games, when the field of 64 teams is cut down to the Sweet 16, is one of the most lucrative wagering weekends of the year.

"The volume is tremendous," MGM Grand Las Vegas President Scott Sibella said. "Over the next 17 days, we'll be up 30 to 35 percent in food and beverage revenues (over) a normal week. The NCAA Tournament accounts for 60 percent of all our college basketball wagering."

Tourism officials don't estimate a visitor head count for March Madness, but hotel occupancy is expected to beat 90 percent this weekend, with many properties sold out. Average daily room rates also kick up.

The group of friends booth-camping at Red Rock is not unique. Citywide, groups of gamblers have made annual pilgrimages to Las Vegas during March Madness.

"It used to be just the men who come for the tournament, but now the wives often make the trip," Sibella said. "The pools are crowded, the spas do good business. The weekend is good throughout the resort."

Julian Dugas, vice president of sports marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said the Strip has become just as popular for basketball fans as the regional sites where the games are actually played.

Howard Greenbaum, vice president of specialty gaming for Caesars Entertainment Corp., said the popularity of March Madness in Las Vegas was established before the era of cable television because a Las Vegas sports book was one of the few places a fan could see all the games.

"In the old days, we'd search the satellite dish for a game," said Greenbaum, who once operated the Harrah's Las Vegas Casino & Hotel sports book. "The popularity grew from there. Las Vegas became the place to be."

Greenbaum said Caesars' two golf courses -- Rio Secco and Cascata -- will also do a healthy business this weekend.

Many casino executives likened March Madness to Super Bowl weekend for wagering action and the New Year's Eve holiday for the sheer magnitude of visitors. Michael Lawton, senior research director for the Gaming Control Board, said the agency doesn't release wagering figures for the NCAA Tournament.

"But it's huge," Lawton said.

Sports book operators said the tournament doesn't reach Super Bowl betting levels -- $93.9 million this year -- but it's close.

"Actually, March Madness is a lot more fun than Super Bowl weekend," said Art Manteris, vice president of race and sports book operations for Station Casinos. "There are so many games with all the regions going on simultaneously and with games going down to the final shot, it's a tremendous amount of action."

It's also much less stressful on sports book operators. Instead of the book's profitability for the entire weekend hinging on the outcome of one game, the action is stretched over multiple contests.

Manteris said the initial slate of games -- Thursday through Sunday -- is much more lucrative to the sports books than the Final Four weekend, when the national champion is determined.

Which brings us back to the Red Rock crew.

The group -- sometimes as many as eight -- has been coming to Las Vegas for nearly two decades. They are not what you would term high rollers. Each has a set bankroll, but they have action on almost every game to make the weekend interesting.

Most have known each other since college. The annual trip is also the one time of year they can get together. It's just three guys for the current visit -- two wore T-shirts promoting the website of their friend, freelance travel journalist Matt Villano, who couldn't make the trip.

Once March hits, the guys begin studying up on college basketball in earnest. They often fill out brackets at home before setting out for Las Vegas.

"That's child's play," Roberts said.

Colleagues back home know where they are headed. Often, their friends will slip them a few dollars to put on a favorite school.

In 2008, they wagered heavily as a group on underdog University of San Diego, which knocked off the No. 4 seed University of Connecticut 70-69 on a last-second shot.

Their joyous celebration was noticed by another college basketball fan taking in the action at Red Rock: ESPN and ABC sportscaster Brent Musburger.

"He told us, 'Nice pick,';" Devitt said.

Related Links
Nevada Online Gambling
Caesars Palace Details
Harrah's Las Vegas Casino & Hotel Details
MGM Grand Hotel & Casino Las Vegas Details
Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority Gaming Vendor Information
Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa Details


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