Las Vegas economy braces for life minus March Madness

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Wade Vandervort

Fans cheer for their team during March Madness at South Point Casino, Thursday, Mar. 15, 2018.

Fri, Mar 13, 2020 (2 a.m.)

The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is a rite of passage in Las Vegas for many visitors, as thousands arrive from across the nation sporting the colors of their alma maters. There’s nothing better than March Madness viewing parties in Las Vegas.

They sit in sports books, fill out parlay cards, eat at restaurants, take taxis, book hotel rooms and passionately cheer.

So what happens when an event that has become ingrained as part of the city’s identity is taken away? With the NCAA Tournament now canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, Las Vegas is preparing to feel the wide-reaching effects.

Last year, more than $340 million was estimated to have been wagered in Las Vegas on the NCAA Tournament. That’s more than was bet on the Super Bowl. But while the tourney has become a vital tent-pole event for the books, many ancillary businesses rely on the Big Dance to keep people coming.

During the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Las Vegas hotels have posted occupancy rates of 98% over the last three years, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Last year, March was the city’s busiest month in terms of visitor volume at 3.69 million. Without wall-to-wall elimination games enticing fans this year, that number is likely to take a hit.

“We understand and respect the NCAA’s decision to suspend its basketball tournaments,” said Lori Nelson-Kraft, a spokeswoman for the LVCVA, in a statement Thursday. “We recognize this difficult decision by the NCAA will certainly affect leisure visitation as our destination serves as a popular location to watch and wager on the tournaments.”  

The full impact of cancellations won’t be known until late next month, when the authority reports its monthly visitation numbers for March, Nelson-Kraft said.

There’s no question, however, that this will hurt Las Vegas’ collective bottom line, said Chris Andrews, South Point’s sports book director.

“Obviously, this is going to be a big hit,” Andrews said. “The whole world is kind of coming to a halt. How this all plays out, I can only speculate like everyone else.”

Andrews said the book at South Point will remain open, even though major sports leagues like the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have all suspended their seasons. The white whale for sports books, though, is March Madness.

“March is huge,” Andrews said. “For March the past two years at South Point, all the basketball products like the conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament, we out-wrote the Super Bowl by 2.5 times. We’ll move forward. We’ll have to find things to bet on.”

One such avenue, Andrews said, is NASCAR, which will carry on, at least for now.

On the Strip, resort properties are already feeling the pinch. In a statement Thursday, Jim Murren, MGM’s CEO and chairman, referred to “increased cancellations in our hotel and convention bookings in Las Vegas.”

According to the MGM Resorts International website, the nightly rate for a room at Mandalay Bay from next Thursday to Sunday — covering the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament — is $79.

For comparison, a Thursday to Sunday stay at Mandalay Bay for Super Bowl weekend in February 2021 is currently listed at $244 per night.

“We’re going to have to wait and see,” Andrews said. “We’ll have to see what baseball does.”

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