At 9:15 a.m. on Thursday, March 19, an official in stripes at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh will toss an orange-and-black sphere skyward, christening the opening weekend of the 2015 NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. The crowd in the 19,100-seat arena will no doubt be buzzing, but the most riveting action will be found some 2,200 miles away in Las Vegas. Here, sportsbooks (and showrooms converted into sportsbooks) will be teeming with enthusiastic fans, mostly men, mostly ranging in age from 21 to 55, virtually all with a financial stake in the outcome of the battle between 14th-seeded Northeastern and third-seeded Notre Dame.
Over the ensuing 9½ hours, another 15 games will tip off at four venues across the country. In the interim, millions of dollars will be won and lost in Vegas. Thousands of adult beverages and artery-clogging calories will be consumed. Hundreds of ATM trips will be made. Dozens of collective cheers (and groans) will rattle the walls. And precious few hours of sleep will be had.
Then the sun will rise, and this scene will repeat. As it will on Saturday. As it will on Sunday.
It is the first four days of the NCAA tournament in Las Vegas, a gluttonous basketball buffet of 48 games spread across 96 hours. For sports fans who prefer a little action with their action, it’s the most physically, emotionally and—on occasion—financially draining weekend of the year. It’s also the most highly anticipated—even more so than the kickoff to the football season.
“The first weekend of the NFL is always very exciting, because even the Browns are in first place,” says veteran Las Vegas oddsmaker Jay Kornegay, who runs the Westgate (formerly LVH) Superbook. “But March Madness, as far as the level of excitement and the amount of bodies and the range of emotions that are flowing through the room, I don’t think anything compares to it.”
Earlier this month, the American Gaming Association announced results of a poll that revealed about $9 billion is expected to be wagered on this year’s NCAA tournament. A huge chunk of that will come from bracket pools (the AGA estimates 40 million Americans will fill out 70 million brackets), as well as illegal wagers placed outside Nevada, which remains the only state to allow sports betting.
That $9 billion figure dwarfs the $3.9 billion that the AGA claims was wagered nationwide on the Super Bowl. But when it comes to legal wagers here in Nevada, the Super Bowl still reigns supreme: Last month’s NFL title tilt between the Patriots and Seahawks attracted $116 million in action; by comparison, a realistic estimate for the amount of money bet on the NCAA tournament is about $100 million. (When it comes to betting handle for basketball, the Gaming Control Board lumps together college and pro wagers, making it impossible to pin down an exact figure.)
Then again, the Super Bowl is a four-hour event that takes place on a single afternoon; the NCAA tournament offers more than 60 games spread across three weeks, highlighted by the
opening four days around which groups of friends from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Texas, to Portland, Oregon, routinely plan Vegas vacations.
In many cases, those vacations are stretched from four days to six, as tourists hit town as early as Wednesday (so they’re in place by the time games tipoff Thursday morning) and stick around until the final buzzer ends that 48th game on Sunday evening, finally departing sometime Monday. “YOLO, whatever you want to call it,” Kornegay says, “these guys are going to squeeze every ounce out of this weekend.”
Add up all the receipts—including room rates that escalate every year; three weeks ago, the Cosmopolitan was fetching more than $800 a night—and the first weekend of March Madness ranks among the most economically important on our city’s calendar.
“You look outside the sportsbook [business] and the tournament encompasses everything for a [long] weekend—visitation, hotel prices, food-and-beverage opportunities,” says Jason McCormick, director of race and sports for Red Rock Resort. “Because people are here for an extended period of time, that’s where you might say March Madness has a growing importance that may be leapfrogging the Super Bowl.”
McCormick says the first weekend of March Madness has become so popular at his property that he receives more requests for reserved seats than for any other event of the year—including the Super Bowl and Kentucky Derby. “You have guys when they leave here after the weekend saying, ‘Hey, we’ll be back here next year. Can we get that booth?’ It’s a constant massaging of requests.”
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time back in the 1970s when the NCAA tournament was such an afterthought that many of the games were tape-delayed. Legendary Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro remembers those days well—and not so fondly. “March used to be a dead month around these joints,” says Vaccaro, who currently helms the race and sportsbook at South Point. “You had the dog days of the NBA and that’s it—you waited for baseball.”
Vaccaro can’t pinpoint the year, but he recalls receiving a phone call from the marketing department at the original MGM Grand (where he worked at the time) shortly after a Super Bowl in the mid-1980s. “I remember thinking, ‘What the hell do they want me for?’” Vaccaro says. “And I’ll never forget it: They said, ‘Jimmy, what’s March 15?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know—what’s March 15?’”
Turns out marketing was getting calls from customers interested in making reservations for the first weekend of March Madness. “When the marketing department calls up the sportsbook, you knew something was there,” Vaccaro says. “Because they don’t move unless there’s some inertia happening.”
That inertia came courtesy of young men, mostly college students spending their spring break in Las Vegas with their buddies betting tournament games. “At first, it was mostly groups of two guys,” Vaccaro recalls. “Then two quickly became six.”
Just like that, an annual Boys Weekend in Vegas ritual was born. And it continued full stop, even as college kids in their early 20s turned into working men in their mid-30s and then family men in their late 40s.
“Years ago, it was a twenty- to thirtysomething crowd, but that age group has expanded over the years. And I think it’s widening,” Kornegay says. “And it’s funny: You’ll see guys, whether they’re 25 or 55, they’re letting it go. They’re with their buddies, it’s time to just relax, forget about everything.”
Needless to say, all that “relaxing” often takes its toll. “It’s great to see the guys on Thursday morning, when it’s, ‘Let’s get Bloody Marys! Let’s do some day drinking!’” Kornegay says. “And then you get to Sunday morning and it’s lattes, cappuccinos. [Laughs.] I really should film it on Thursday morning—when everybody is just so jacked up, they’re all doing the pee-pee dance, they’re all ready to go—compared to Sunday morning. It’s almost like night and day.”
It’s late in the afternoon on Thursday, and fifteen seconds remain in the game between No. 1 seed Villanova and No. 16 seed Lafayette, a school whose mascot (the Leopards) few could’ve named a week ago. Lafayette has the basketball, trailing by 25 points. The game is over. Except it isn’t at all. The Leopards are a 23-point underdog, making this final possession anything but meaningless.
The clock ticks down.
The ball makes its way to an open Lafayette shooter, who is camped behind the 3-point line.
The shooter bends his knees and rises, as do the crowds in every sportsbook in this city—half of whom are holding a ticket that says “Lafayette +23,” and half of whom are holding one that says “Villanova -23.”
The ball takes flight, reaches its apex and begins its gravity-influenced descent toward the hoop. It hits the back rim first, then the front rim, then … falls to the floor. Villanova bettors erupt. Lafayette bettors slump back in their chairs (then reach for their wallets and get back in line to ride the exhilarating roller coaster once again).
This money-on-the-line scenario plays out multiple times during those 48 opening-weekend games, not to mention other heart-stopping moments that are tied to first-half bets, second-half bets and over/under bets. It’s the reason why sportsbook directors like McCormick receive group-seating requests a year in advance. And why Kornegay years ago started funneling overflow crowds into the Westgate’s largest theater for Hoops Central. And why various Strip properties for the last several years have been turning nightlife venues and restaurants into profit-building March Madness viewing parties, selling tickets or charging food-and-beverage minimums for fans to watch games.
One of the more popular spots every March is Lagasse’s Stadium, the Palazzo’s restaurant/sportsbook hybrid. To secure a guaranteed seat at Lagasse’s during tournament games, guests must agree to a $200 per-person food-and-beverage minimum. Despite that hefty price tag, Lagasse’s typically sells out weeks before the tournament tips off, while similar pay-to-watch-them-play setups are increasingly drawing big crowds.
It’s Economics 101: limited supply, unlimited demand.
“People are willing to pay that to be comfortable,” says Kornegay, whose Hoops Central offers free admission. “So if you can maximize your profits, like any other industry, I can understand that.”
In a sense, it’s not much different than ponying up for bottle service during Calvin Harris’ DJ set at Hakkasan—except there’s no chance of you covering the cost of that bottle while watching Harris spin. At least with the NCAA tournament, if you place your bets properly, you’ve got a shot to recoup some (if not all) of your investment.
Not that you’re required to make such an investment. After all, there’s not a sportsbook in this city that has a cover charge. Sure, you and your posse might have to show up at the crack of dawn to land seats in front of the big screens, but that’s a minor inconvenience for the opportunity to partake in what is annually the most thrilling 96 hours on the sports calendar.
And the madness begins the moment Northeastern vs. Notre Dame tips off.
“That first day, the electricity in the room is just overwhelming—even before the first ball is tipped,” Kornegay says. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”