March Madness offers peek at leaner Vegas vacation

“Recession? What recession?”

That’s the feeling that the first weekend of “March Madness” brought back to the Strip. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which isn’t played anywhere near Las Vegas, nevertheless has developed into a much-needed economic driver for the tourism/gaming complex, and possibly a model for a leaner Vegas vacation.

Those drawn to March Madness don’t just fill the sports books beyond capacity: They crowd into bars, lounges and theaters that have been set up as overflow watching areas, and line up at satellite sports betting stations on the casino floor. They also spend time at the table games (blackjack seems to be a favorite) though not so much at the slots.

The basketball-mad crowd covers all ages, from cigar-chomping sharp bettors in their 60s to still-in-school rowdies wearing their college colors. It skews young, however, with 20- to 30-somethings dominating in most casinos. The audience in most sports books is about 97 percent male.

The NCAA Tournament, particularly the first weekend, has become an unofficial cross-country college reunion getaway. Although many fans have moved on from the frat house or dorm television lounge and might live thousands of miles apart, they return to Las Vegas in groups of varying sizes each spring to watch the games, drink beer and enjoy what’s become the ultimate guy trip.

The tournament has become one of the biggest draws in town. While it’s impossible to directly assess its total economic impact (no one fills out a survey saying they came to town for the games), it’s acknowledged as a huge draw.

“Room occupancy is consistently above 90 percent for the first weekend,” Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority spokesman Jeremy Handel says. “It’s always one of the top weekends of the year.”

In terms of total handle (money wagered), the first weekend of the tournament is usually on par with the Super Bowl, though it’s spread out over four days.

“People betting on the Super Bowl have one, maybe two decisions—the point spread and the over/under,” explains Jay Rood, race and sports book director for MGM Mirage. “The average bettor might make a few proposition bets, so maybe he’ll have seven to 10 tickets in his pocket for the whole event. The average March Madness bettor has seven to 10 tickets in his pocket every day for four days.”

Generally, March Madness bettors are younger than Super Bowl bettors and have a smaller total bankroll, but they bet a great deal more. Rood describes a “churning” effect, as players try to parlay their winnings. He estimates that there are four times as many bets placed on the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament as there are on the Super Bowl.

The result is a challenge to sports books: With so much nonstop action spread over four days, March Madness can drive those who work in the books mad. While the handle has consistently gained over the past few years, the casinos haven’t had an easy time of it.

“As far as [the books winning] goes, it’s getting tougher and tougher to grind it out,” Rood says, crediting more sophisticated bettors who obsessively scour the Internet for up-to-date information on teams. Where a book might have been keeping 5 percent of all wagers a few years ago, the best most hope for these days is 2 to 3 percent—a slim margin.

Meantime, the March Madness crowd generally skimps on the frills, preferring a bucket of beers to top-shelf cocktails, fast food to gourmet eateries, and the frenzied buzz of a jam-packed sports book to the big-ticket entertainment options. It offers a peek at a value-oriented, experience-seeking market that Las Vegas is going to have get used to catering to, if it wants to make it through the recession.

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