For Vegas sports books, March Madness is ‘the most fun time of the year’

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Steve Marcus

Michele and Joseph Felix of Tucson pose with their betting ticket at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook Friday, March 9, 2018. The couple bet on the Wildcats to win and then left to catch the game at T-Mobile Arena.

Sun, Mar 11, 2018 (3 a.m.)

The line to place a wager at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook stretches to legendary lengths during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

In previous years, the congregation of hundreds of bettors has started at the betting counter, snaked through a corridor and past rows of slot machines toward the casino floor before settling near blackjack and roulette tables.

“We just try to reiterate patience,” says Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations at the Superbook.

The queue almost always moves faster than would appear possible, but its sheer size serves as a sight of its own in depicting the magnitude of March Madness in Las Vegas.

It’s an event that’s constantly increasing locally, with a crowd as enveloping as ever expected again this year when the tournament gets underway in earnest with a full day of games Thursday. Last year, bettors wagered a record $439.5 million on basketball statewide in the month of March, with sports books posting a $41.2 million win, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

The NCAA Tournament also played a major role in what the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Association reported as the third-busiest tourism month in the city’s history. A total of 3.78 million visitors traveled to Las Vegas in March 2017.

“I’ve always said for many years that if I ever moved away from Las Vegas for any reason, the first four days of the tournament would inevitably be the time of year I visited,” said Art Manteris, Station Casinos’ vice president of race and sports operations. “Being in a sports books during the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament is incomparable to anything else for sports fans.”

Kornegay recalled the first time he felt the madness reach an overwhelming level was sometime in the early 1990s while working at the Imperial Palace. The sports book staff realized its 200-seat area was insufficient for the demand level, so it organized a watch party in the property’s 800-seat theater.

To show all the games — which would often cut in and out because they were from regional feeds, before dedicated channels for each game were established — the staff rolled in four 60-inch tube televisions onto the stage.

“I wish I had a picture of it because it was so awful,” Kornegay said with a chuckle. “It was hilarious, people looking down and trying to watch. But it was packed, and people loved it.”

Kornegay has come a long way with his current operation. The Westgate annually opens its International Theater for bettors during the first weekend of the tournament, with every game mapped out to show on a set of massive projection screens.

Similar watch parties are scheduled at a number of casinos across the valley, with Stations debuting one of its own in a conference room at Green Valley Ranch.

Before the packed ballrooms, buzzer beaters and big payouts, however, there’s a tremendous amount of planning for bookmakers like Kornegay and Manteris. Kornegay said he gave his staff a week after the Super Bowl concluded to catch its collective breath but then jumped into NCAA Tournament preparation by evaluating every area of service before the crowds arrive.

“We review everything before the tournament,” Manteris said, similarly. “We take a good, hard look at everything we do and meet with everyone and talk to everyone about the key parts of our operation, starting with guest service.”

Those reviews include areas such as audio and visual presentations, beverage services and security protocols. It’s important to wrap up all those aspects well in advance of the tournament so game day can enable a focus on the most important part — booking the action.

Contrary to popular belief, bookmakers consider managing the betting the easiest part of the NCAA Tournament. They’ve taken bets on hundreds of college basketball games for months, making the process more or less second nature at this point of the year.

“There’s nothing different about the bookmaking except the business levels we expect,” Kornegay said. “We know it’s coming, and it’s been getting bigger every year.”

“Obviously, the mobile (betting) app has taken it to another level. Everyone has their own private window, so they don’t have to wait in line and they can wager way more often. It’s way more convenient, and it’s played a huge role in the growth of this event.”

When the Superbook introduced mobile betting two years ago, Kornegay thought bettors wagering on their phones would “cannibalize” action at the window. It hasn’t worked out that way during the NCAA Tournament, despite the Superbook’s app accounting for 45 percent of its total betting handle.

The volume has also stayed at consistent levels in person, because of the influx of basketball fans who travel to town for the tournament. The Superbook’s line may look a little less daunting these days, with part of Kornegay’s preparation consisting of ordering extra stanchions to help herd the mass coming his way.

No detail is too minute when it comes to smoothing out March Madness events. Las Vegas sports books have continued to show that they’re capable, which so far has meant the bettors have kept coming.

“I love it all,” Manteris said. “It’s an exciting time of the year for us, and for me personally, it’s the most fun time of the year. To get to prepare for the NCAA Tournament and watch games with a rooting interest is fabulous to me.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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