All Bets Are Off

Sports books and the NFL season are a Las Vegas tradition. But what happens if the fields go dark next year?

Walking into a Las Vegas sports book on a Sunday during the NFL season is like visiting a shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving. The bustle of activity can overload the senses with multiple games on TV screens overhead, fans living and dying with every snap of the ball as they consume hot dogs and beer, and bettors lining up at the windows to collect money or put down more.

But the scene next year could be completely different. With a lockout by NFL owners a very real—even likely—occur-­rence in 2011, local sports books could be slightly livelier than a mausoleum.

“College football would still exist on Saturdays, so that would still be a good day,” says Johnny Avello, the Wynn’s executive director of race and sports book operations. “But those same bettors are back the following day and [usually] betting more because the limits are higher in pro football. … It would be pretty devastating.”

The total sports betting handle—the amount of money that changes hands—is about $2.6 billion annually in Nevada, with football, both pro and college, accounting for nearly half of that. The handle for the Super Bowl alone usually approaches $100 million statewide.

Jay Kornegay, executive director of the Hilton SuperBook, says little could be done to try and compensate for such a tremendous financial hit.

“I don’t know how you just make up revenue not having the NFL,” he says. “People are betting the college ranks already. You possibly could try to enhance some of that, but you’d just be spinning your wheels a little bit. I think we’re at the mercy of the league. I might update my résumé.”

The NFL hasn’t had a play stoppage since 1987, when a 24-day players’ strike shortened the regular season by one game and led to teams using replacement players for three games. That followed a 57-day players’ strike in 1982 that cut the regular season to nine games.

“The public couldn’t bet on their favorite players and couldn’t get the most out of a game, so that created a problem [with the replacement players in ’87],” Avello says. “There was still some wagering, but nothing like when all the participants are there.”

This time around, it’s the owners who are threatening to lock out the players. Owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008, wanting a big slice of the 59.6 percent of designated revenues that players receive, and are also seeking to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games. Players want to eliminate the salary cap, and would like bigger rosters and more money for a longer schedule.

Kornegay hopes that both sides realize that the stakes are too high to put the season at risk. “There’s really nothing we can do about it,” he says. “The NFL is the most powerful league out there, but during these tough times I’m not sure either side can afford a work stoppage, so we would just hope that they settle this thing and come to an agreement before the [deadline].”

The current collective bargaining agreement runs out in March, and a new agreement probably wouldn’t be finalized until summer—if at all.

If that happens, Avello says he will get creative and maybe add some new items to the betting menu, including expanding propositions on college games as a way to drive traffic to the sports book.

It’s a problem he’d rather not dwell on right now, especially with the handle from the NFL’s opening week improving over last year’s numbers. But it’s something he can’t ignore for too long.

“I know [the lockout is] a possibility, but it’s not something that I’ve given much thought to,” Avello says. “But I’m going to now, that’s for sure.”

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