LAS VEGAS – This was most certainly not a message approved by the NCAA.
Shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday a cheer went up in the sports book at the Red Rock hotel-casino. The massive big screens showed Coach Mike Krzyzewski taking his seat on the Duke sideline, ready for the opening tip against UNC Wilmington.
The tournament was on. But the party had already begun.
It was St. Patrick’s Day, though that mattered little to those sipping beers in the morning hours. All over this gambling town the opening of the NCAA Tournament is one big party even the Irish would envy.
At the Mirage on the Las Vegas Strip those wanting a seat on a couch in the sports book and an all-you-can-drink wristband were too late. At $200 each, they had sold out months ago for the first two days of the tournament.
Those wanting nothing more than a seat in the sports book started lining up at 4:30 a.m., nearly five hours before the first tipoff. The night before, fans who knew they wouldn’t get a seat stood in lines to make their opening bets early.
By the time a winner is crowned next month, bettors are expected to have wagered some $150 million or so, more than the record $132.5 million that was bet in Nevada on the last Super Bowl.
“The tournament gets way more passionate fans than the Super Bowl,” Mirage oddsmaker Jay Rood said. “The Super Bowl is a big party, but this is a bigger party. People have connections to the teams.”
The party was in full force early at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, where a theater seating 1,500 was jammed almost from the opening tip. Oddsmaker Jay Kornegay said fans were let in at 8 a.m. but only in groups of 50 to prevent chaos.
“The levy broke this morning and they came rushing down here,” Kornegay said “It was like a tsunami, like they thought we would never open.”
At the South Point hotel-casino, two large ballrooms were already outfitted with big screen TVs, portable bars and betting stations to handle the overflow from the sports book. When those filled up, another ballroom was opened and was more than half full before the opening games were complete.
Oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro, who began taking bets in Las Vegas in the 1970s, was forced into action stamping complimentary drink tickets when the supply ran out. There was no shortage of takers, and the casino even had a massage therapist with a portable table to soothe weary bettors.
“You can bet a 3-teamer and get a massage,” Vaccaro said. “What’s wrong with that?”
The opening week of the tournament has evolved over the years into a holiday-like week for this city’s sports books. The demographic is mostly male and mostly young, and they come ready to drink, bet and cheer on their favorite teams in the company of hundreds of others just like them.
“It’s the ultimate mancation,” Kornegay said. “It’s all mostly guys coming in here in groups of two to six and ready to rip it up. The one guy, and there is always one, who brings his girlfriend is kind of alienated.”
No one really knows how much is bet illegally on the NCAA Tournament, both in office pools and with the neighborhood bookie. It’s easier to track in Las Vegas, where the betting is strictly regulated.
But oddsmakers don’t need to wait until the figures are tallied up to know they’re doing box office business, especially early when the games go off one after another.
“What you’ve got here is the greatest thing a bookmaker can ask for,” Vaccaro said. “The churn is great because every 45 minutes you have a new game. There’s so many people here I have no idea where they’re coming from.”