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Best of Gary Trask
48 hours of March Madness, Las Vegas style21 March 2016
"It's showtime, baby," says the Charles Barkley-esque mountain of a man with a high-pitched voice and infectious giggle. "It's showtime."
As a college hoops junkie and an avid sports bettor, I've always wanted to experience the first two days of March Madness in Las Vegas. And here I was, sitting inside the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino SuperBook, the largest sportsbook in the world. Stationed smack dab in the middle of the new bar, I stare at the 220-foot long, 18-foot high video wall. Every seat inside the SuperBook is full. Hundreds of other fans are standing in the aisles and the line at the betting windows is at least 200 people deep.
As the ball goes into the air for the opening tip of the Duke-N.C. Wilmington game, the place erupts, much like you would see at kickoff of the Super Bowl or as the opening bell rings for a heavyweight boxing match. The Duke game is the first of 32 that will be played over the next two days and I have, perhaps, the best seat in Las Vegas.
Yes, indeed, Johnny. It's showtime. Let the games begin.
Of course, securing a prime seat at the Westgate on the busiest day of the sports-betting calendar didn't happen by accident. It took some effort. I arrive in Vegas late Wednesday night, after spending three days at the National Indian Gaming Association conference in Phoenix.
Before settling in for the night, I make three stops to open mobile sports betting accounts: one at a William Hill kiosk, another at Gold Coast Hotel & Casino, a Boyd Gaming property, and a final visit to The Palms Casino Resort, a CG Technology outlet. It's been a long few days and it pains me to set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. the next morning, but I had been warned earlier in the week by Westgate Vice President of Race and Sports Operations Jay Kornegay that every non-reserved seat would be gone by 7 a.m. on Thursday morning, maybe earlier.
As the sun rises the next day, I arrive at the Westgate at 6:15 a.m. and it's busy, but not packed. I immediately go to the bar where I find Johnny stocking the beer coolers and wiping down glasses.
"Have a seat, my man," he says with a smile. "You're just in time. This place is going to be jamming by 7 o'clock."
He's obviously speaking from experience. The SuperBook is filled with rabid sports bettors draped in their St. Patrick's Day green within 45 minutes. After downing a coffee and a breakfast burrito, it's time to join the rest of the crowd in the festivities and order a Guinness. I'm told by Valerie, Johnny's fellow bartender, that they are on special for $2 all day.
Seriously. Can things get any better right now?
By 7:15 a.m. the line at the betting counter is about 100 people deep. Even though I already have three other sportsbook apps locked and loaded on my phone, I decide to try the Westgate app. After getting a player's card, the entire process takes about 15 minutes and after I make my deposit, the friendly woman at the counter gives me four drink tickets. Yep, things can indeed get better.
Upon returning to my seat, I join in on the conversation going on around me with fellow bettors, who are enjoying NC Wilmington's fast start against Duke as a 10-point underdog. Even though I'm pretty sure most of these guys haven't watched a ton of college basketball this season, they are suddenly Jay Bilas. Opinions and analysis are flying all over the place. Everyone's bracket is still intact and nobody has lost a bet yet. That, of course, is about to change dramatically over the next few hours, but for the time being every person in the book is in their "happy place," including yours truly.
While I didn't take any official surveys and don't have any facts to back this up, my sense is that the large majority of fans that come to Las Vegas for March Madness are NOT avid sports bettors. This is amateur hour, for sure. Throughout my 48 hours in Vegas, I overheard dozens of conversations with guys explaining to each other about how the pointspread and money line works and how much a three-team parlay pays.
Having said that, it's probably no surprise that the total basketball handle in March for the state's sportsbooks has been on a steady rise, going from $19.4 million in 2014 to $27.9 million last year. While most of the bets that are being made are less than $100, the volume of these wagers adds up quickly, much to the delight of the guys on the other side of the counter.
For the entire day, the line at the SuperBook betting window looks like what you'd see at Disney's Space Mountain during school vacation week. It's difficult to fathom why these guys aren’t spending the 15 minutes to open a mobile app account. Instead of standing in line for close to an hour every time I want to place a wager, my iPhone sits on the bar next to my $2 Guinness and allows me to shop lines and bet at four different books, placing any kind of wager imaginable – halftime, full game, money line, parlays, props, in-game, you name it. As long as I'm within Nevada state lines, I can use the account. It's the perfect option for an event like March Madness.
But most of the bettors I spoke to simply weren't ready to make the leap and open an account, despite the continuous long lines. Some told me they prefer to have an actual ticket in their hand. Others said they don't trust the technology while many simply had no idea the app was available to non-Nevada residents.
"Yes, we need to do a better job of educating the bettors," Kornegay admits when asked why a lot of visitors don't take advantage of the app. "We're trying to get the word out and explain that this is such a great convenience and it's easy to use. We really think that once people try it, they won't go back to the old way of betting."
Kornegay's assessment is spot on for this sports bettor. I'm sold and will – without a doubt – utilize the apps on return visits. It's a no-brainer.
With the heavy volume of fans crowding every sportsbook in Vegas during these first two days of the NCAA tournament, many casinos now host March Madness viewing parties. As Duke begins to pull away from NC-Wilmington, I head down the hall to the International Theater where the Westgate is holding one these events. The 1,500-seat venue is just as electric as the SuperBook and filled to capacity. Admission is free but I'm told – like myself – those with the best seats in the house were standing in line before the sun came up.
While walking into the theater, I spot former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman asking the bettors in line if they have any winners for him. It's 10 a.m. and the popular ex-mayor and former mob lawyer is sipping a martini adorned with a green pepper garnish, perfect for St. Patrick's Day, and he is joined by two Las Vegas showgirls. While for most people in the theater this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for Goodman, it's just another ordinary day. Cocktails and showgirls.
As I arrive back at the SuperBook, the intensity of the crowd has picked up even further as five games are now in action. It's near bedlam as Yale shocks Baylor. The line at the betting window still snakes to the back of the book and the crowd cheers with every basket of every game. If the past few hours are a harbinger of things to come, this is going to be an epic stint in Vegas.
Full disclosure: I'm a sucker for Downtown Las Vegas. Every time I visit the city, I always try to spend some time on Fremont Street. Call me old school (believe me, you won't be the first) but I love the authenticity and historic feel of DTLV.
My March Madness experience would be no different as I hit three off-Strip viewing parties, all of which had their own unique look and feel.
First stop is The D Las Vegas where I am guaranteed a seat since I am a new member of the Facebook group aptly named "March Madness in Las Vegas."
The group, started by Barry Inciong in 2008 on Yahoo, has swelled from about eight people to nearly 7,000 over the past eight years. While I'm not a big fan of joining Facebook groups, this one was well worth the effort. Not only is it organized and entertaining, but the posts by Inciong and other members are insightful and informative. In the months leading up the March Madness there are numerous helpful anecdotes about flights, ground transportation, where to stay, what to bring and how to watch the games.
Once the madness begins, there are up-to-the-minute reports on what the atmosphere is like at the different sportsbooks and how long the lines are to get in. On Monday, while the experience was still fresh in everyone's mind, reviews of all the viewing parties were posted, which will be great information for next year.
As a bonus, the group has its own 100-seat section at The D's viewing party. There are nine huge TV screens on the main wall of the ballroom, which can comfortably fit about 400 people, with ample seating and private restrooms and betting stations. It’s free to enter and there is a cash bar and food available. There is also a "man cave" setup on the side of the room with comfy couches and a bank of four large-screen TVs.
A craps table and three blackjack tables are set up in front of three more TVs and "March Madness in Las Vegas" members were given a $25 match play chip. There was also access to a patio with four more TVs and a cash bar, which is a welcome respite for this East Coaster. As enjoyable as my time at the Westgate was, it was nice to take in this gorgeous 75-degree, sunny day in Vegas on the patio, while still being able to enjoy the games.
Wearing a Kelly green sports jacket, The D's majority owner Derek Stevens is working the crowd, shaking hands, making jokes. The atmosphere is much different than a sportsbook. It's more like a huge cocktail party and most of the crowd is wearing the green March Madness t-shirts that Inciong made available to members in advance.
"We're very fortunate that The D has invited our group to be here again this year," says Inciong, a native of Hawaii who now works as an accountant in northern California. "You know how long the lines are to get into all of these parties. Having our own section here means our members can pretty much show up anytime and get a seat. People just kind of come and go all day long. It's a great atmosphere.
"I love it because I get to meet people in person who have been members of the group for years. It's so nice to put a face to the name of all these people after talking to them online for so long. We all have the same goal this weekend. We just want to come to Vegas, watch a ton of basketball, try to make some money and have a great time doing it."
After making stops at the viewing parties at Golden Nugget and Downtown Grand Las Vegas, I finish off the night on Fremont Street, which is raging with a combination of March Madness fans and St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Green beer is flowing, live Irish music is blaring and people in bizarre green-themed outfits are dancing in the street. It's been a long day for sports bettors and Irish revelers alike and we still have a Friday menu of 16 more March Madness games ahead of us. Buckle up.
Since I have a ticket to the sold-out viewing party at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on Friday, there's no need to get up an obscene hour today and the extra sleep is much needed. Apparently, I'm not alone. When I arrive on the Strip at 7:30 a.m. the mood is much tamer than it was 24 hours earlier. There are still a lot of people wearing green, and my guess is that they never went to bed last night.
First stop is the new sportsbook at The Cosmo, which I haven’t seen since it opened in January. All of the hype and praise it has received is well deserved. While much smaller than the Westgate SuperBook, it is sleek, plush and comfortable. It's also at capacity as the first game on Friday's card tips off.
Senior Vice President of Gaming Operations Brian Benowitz is there taking in all of the action and is thrilled with the feedback he is receiving regarding the new venue. He also tells me that on Thursday the handle at the book was "well over double" than the previous year's first day of March Madness.
"What we love about a day like today is that last year at this time all of these people in here chose to be somewhere else," Benowitz says with pride. "This year, because of what we have created, they chose to be here and if you look around you can see why. We have everything you need and more here to make it the perfect sports-betting experience. It's exciting."
For those who couldn't get a seat inside the book, The Cosmo's "Hoops and Hops" viewing party inside The Chelsea was an ideal second option. The 40,000 square-foot theater that played host to Bruno Mars on New Year's Eve and numerous UFC events has been transformed into gigantic sportsbook for the first three days of March Madness. My $150 ducat gained me entrance into theater and once inside it was open bar.
On the ground floor the thirsty crowd was raucous as it swarmed the huge circular bar that had nearly 10 bartenders serving drinks at once. Signature cocktails for the day included an "Alley Oop" (Stoli Blueberry Vodka, Blue Pom Juice and Tropical Red Bull), "On the Rebound" (Stoli Vodka, cucumber dill, sriracha and Bloody Mary mix) and "Jump Ball" (Jack Daniel's Honey, lemon, ginger and tea). There were also buckets of Red Bull available for $30 and from the looks of the crowd my guess was this was a popular choice. The slow and lazy Friday morning I witnessed outside on the Strip a few hours ago was nowhere to be found here at The Cosmo.
While taking in the games, guests were also playing pool, shuffleboard and blackjack. On the far left side of the room there was a basketball court set up, where later in the evening I watched about 30 guys play the longest and perhaps most entertaining game of "Knockout" that I have ever witnessed.
Upstairs in the balcony, the sight lines for the games were even better than down below. In addition to the TVs on the main wall, you could also view more games on the "scoreboard-style" video screen hanging from the ceiling. The combination of my mobile sports apps and cocktail servers wearing black-and-white striped referee jerseys made it easy for me to sit in one place for hours.
In other words, this was a true sports bettor's paradise. The atmosphere was unlike anything I have ever experienced in a sportsbook and it derailed my plans to hit up several other parties that day. I had found a home for Friday. There was no reason to leave.
Eventually, my body was requesting fresh air, so I made my way across the street to the new Budweiser Beer Park at Paris Las Vegas. The new roof-top bar venue that overlooks the Strip was packed and while it didn't seem like a die-hard basketball crowd, the Middle Tennessee State upset of Michigan State put the place into a frenzy. You could hear brackets busting everywhere.
Next door, the energy was bursting at the seams inside the sportsbook at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. This is one of the smaller books on The Strip, but the atmosphere was electric. A large group of guys wearing South Dakota State jerseys were cheering on their team with the hopes of seeing another upset. Most of them told me they "bet the house" on their hometown Jackrabbits, plus nine points over Maryland. When I got back to my seat at The Cosmo and saw South Dakota State lose, but easily cover the spread in a 79-74 loss, I regretted not hanging around to see that group's reaction.
Meanwhile, time was ticking on my March Madness experience. The final games of the day were tipping off and I was staring at an 11 p.m. red-eye flight back home to Boston. I found a seat in the front row of the ground level of The Chelsea and locked myself into the last three games on the board.
On my way to the airport, I had to make a stop at The Palms to withdraw funds from my new mobile app account. The book was half full as the last games of the day went final and when I got the counter the same gentleman that helped me open the account on Wednesday night was there to greet me, as if he hadn’t moved in two days.
"Did you survive?" I asked him.
"Oh yeah, it was even crazier than we expected," he said with a look of exhaustion. "Every year this thing just gets bigger and bigger. But it was fun. Crazy, but fun."
My sentiments exactly. March Madness in Las Vegas has been checked off my bucket list. Mission accomplished.
Best of Gary Trask