Unless you count the Denver Broncos trading Clinton Portis, March Madness is still two weeks away. But that’s close enough to start talking betting volume.
A record $81.2 million was wagered on this year's Super Bowl in Nevada alone. So it’s scary to think how much could be bet on this year’s NCAA basketball tournament worldwide.
“People went for a pedestrian New England-Carolina Super Bowl,” said professional gambler Steve Fezzik. “That shows Americans are ready. The post 9-11 funk lasted about 18 months. Somewhat of a normalcy has returned to the country. People are ready for big games again.”
You could argue the first two days of the tournament, March 18-19 this year, are the most exciting 48 hours in the sports calendar. Las Vegas sportsbooks start getting filled up by 7:30 in the morning on those days.
From morning through evening, a stream of customers line up to wager, some dodging luggage brought by tourists making bets before checking in to the hotel.
“We will write more tickets on the tournament than the Super Bowl,” said Jay Kornegay, race and sportsbook director at the Imperial Palace. “But the price per ticket is much less.”
That’s the main difference between Super Bowl and NCAA tournament handle. Many of the big hotels take five and six-figure wagers on the Super Bowl. March Madness bets are more plentiful, but much, much smaller. Gamblers, after all, need ammunition for the three-week tournament. There also is a lot more going on this time of year than just one football game, the NBA and NHL.
Baseball is around the corner. Golf and NASCAR, two sports that have been rising in betting popularity every year, are in full swing. So is Arena Football. It’s a big menu for those visiting Las Vegas once or twice a year.
“Usually the tournament will be about a 13-15 percent less write than the Super Bowl, but who knows,” Kornegay said. “We had no idea the Super Bowl matchup would generate such action, and that ended up to be a state record. My guess, and stressing this is just a guess, would be the state of Nevada will write around $65 million on this year’s tournament.”
Unlike the Super Bowl, the Nevada Gaming Control Board does not keep betting figures on the NCAA tournament. Fezzik and others believe this would be a record year for volume if figures were tabulated.
“The best proof of that is the Carolina-New England matchup broke the Super Bowl record,” Fezzik said. “There are so few feel-good stories anymore. People like to escape from the real world, and this is escapism at its best.
“The story lines supersede any other year because you have two undefeated teams (Stanford and Saint Joseph’s). You have Gonzaga looking to be a No. 2 seed. Everyone is going to be rooting for St. Joe’s and Gonzaga, and for the first time they have a legitimate chance to win it all. They are not just a novelty.”
Cynics and conspiracy theorists might disagree. The networks aren’t going to allow a small market team to win after all, no matter how good they might be. Fezzik disagrees.
“The public will embrace a Cinderella story,” he said. “Everyone wants to watch St. Joe’s and Gonzaga. They’re tired of watching the North Carolinas. The normal Joe Q fan wants to see Gonzaga play Duke. That’s the game they want to see.”
Especially if those teams are popular picks to make the final four on everybody’s office pool ballots. It’s estimated more than 40 million people, about three out of every 10 workers in the U.S., have some kind of office pool going. With around 14 million people checking out tournament scores on Web sites last year, according to figures compiled by PC Data Online, you can be sure there’s going to be plenty of wagering across the Internet too.
Nevada sportsbooks have had only one losing Super Bowl the past 10 years, and that came back in 1995 when the 49ers beat the Chargers, 49-26, in a favorite and ‘over’ covering scenario.
During March Madness, bookmakers have to deal with not only professionals picking their spots, but a more informed, sophisticated public getting heavily involved.
If the wise guys and public happen to end up on the same side in a lot of games, bookmakers can’t rely on their 11-to-10 juice advantage to carry them through.
“We cannot guarantee a win on the tournament,” Kornegay said. “Sometimes the players are on the right side more than not, and the house can lose.”
Nobody is wired more into the sports betting scene than Stephen Nover. Nover has been covering sports gaming in Las Vegas since 1984, and has been the premier offshore analyst since 2000. Stephen's industry articles can be found on Covers Gaming. His Guaranteed Picks can be found at Covers Experts.