What it takes to get a comp at a Nevada sportsbook

Oct 30, 2011 |
There’s an old Business 101 maxim that taught us there’s no such thing as free lunch. Using that same basic financial model, you also could argue there’s no such thing as a free beer in the sportsbook.

Someone is paying for it, and it might not be as inexpensive as you think. And if you, the sports bettor, are not someone the casino can count on to take the worst of it, don’t expect to the gravy train to last for long.

That is, if it arrives at all. Comps in the sportsbook have long created an awkward dynamic in which gaming supervisors have to delicately balance their efforts toward top-notch customer service with a bottom-line reality that writing bets on the Dallas Cowboys -4 -- to a player who may or may not know his stuff – doesn’t pay the bills for the house.

Other games, such as slots, keno and roulette, are guaranteed to ring the register at a high rate. That’s why casino patrons who open their wallets to these gaming endeavors, and are used to seeing VIP treatment come their way as a result, often are left with puzzled stares when they are told their $2,000 bet on Notre Dame won’t get them in the door at the steakhouse.

It’s a scene that’s played out on a near daily basis at Nevada betting parlors, particularly during football season when tourist bettors will come in and throw down some decent-size bets, but are stunned to learn the sportsbook manager isn’t on the phone to call a limo. For the most part, they have to settle for a couple of beers and few hours of action on the game.

“It has always been an interesting thing to explain to people over the years,” Terry Cox, director of race and sports at Reno’s Peppermill Hotel Spa Casino, told Covers.com. “I remember a guy when I was at another property came in and asked, ‘How much do I have to bet on a game to get a free room?’

“And I said $10,000. He laughs and says, ‘No, really, how much do I have to bet?’ I tell him, ‘No, really, $10,000.’ He says, ‘No way, man.’ And I ask him, ‘How much money do you think the house makes on a $10,000 bet?”

The customer didn’t stick around for the answer which, using simple math, is about $450, or a projected long-term hold of 4.5 percent, provided the player bets $10,000 on every game and books his share of losers. Considering a room with a view is going to run you $450 minimum, the casino essentially would be operating at a loss if it comped sports bettors such amenities.

Even so, this doesn’t stop otherwise well-intentioned but uninformed players for asking for big concessions from the house. The key for sportsbook executives, according to Jay Kornegay, race and sportsbook director at the Las Vegas Hilton, is responding to such inquiries with a heavy dose of empathy.

“We get asked almost every day,” Kornegay told Covers.com. “They don’t understand the percentages, and think if they come up and play $10,000, we are going to take care of the weekend for them and all of their buddies behind them.

“It’s funny stuff. But seriously, we try to explain it all to them, and most of them will understand after we give them the facts.”

The casino’s projected hold on bets versus its potential loss in comps is an equation that is used for even the most grass-roots benefit extended to sports players – the free cocktail. Policies regarding this one are varied. For instance, the Peppermill will give you a drink for a minimum bet, and showing any betting slip with the current day’s date stamp will get you a cold one at the Las Vegas Hilton as well.

“We’re pretty liberal with the first one,” Cox said. “We’ll buy anybody a drink if you’re actively gaming in the casino.”

Other parlors, such as the MGM Mirage in Las Vegas, require a minimum $125 bet before the waitress comes calling, said sportsbook manager Jeff Stoneback. 

Properties like the MGM that aren’t as loose with the booze have ample numbers to support their policies. According to John Salerno, director of Leroy’s, which runs dozens of satellite sportsbooks in Nevada, giving a $20 bettor a free drink is a losing proposition for the house. That’s because his drink is going to cost the casino more than the $1 the book can expect to take from his wagers over the long haul.

“And we still have to win the bet,” Salerno said.

With the idea of extending some sort of benefit to sports bettors, Leroy’s developed a club card for players five years ago that works like a cash-back credit card. Players get a certain amount of cash back for each bet placed while using the card, and they receive vouchers that can be used for anything they want.

In addition to helping bolster Leroy’s database of players for marketing purposes, Salerno said the club card helps offset the varying policies for player comps at each property where its books are located. Not only do individual casinos have their own specific guidelines, he noted the card helps counteract the common scenario in which lower-level players ask for more comps than those who play higher.

“The guy who comes in and bets $20 always wants 10 drink tokes,” said Salerno, whose club has more than 40,000 members. “The guy who comes in and bets $1,000 asks for nothing. We had to make sure we were aiming this at the right people.”

Many casinos have adopted a similar rewards system, usually one that ties into its players’ club card for slots and table games players. Gamblers can use their cards while placing a bet and will build points, though not nearly at the rate they will see when they stick their plastic wedge in a Megabucks machine.

Moreover, it doesn’t hurt if you’re a sucker. The more parlays, teasers and pleasers you place, the faster you’ll be headed to the buffet, gratis, sportsbook executives agree.

“I don’t know if we were a pioneer with this, but we tailor the comp program to the squares,” the Peppermill’s Cox said. “We’ll track your action and kick back a percentage of comps, but it’s higher if you’re betting parlays instead of straight bets. It’s worked well for us.”

The Leroy’s sports club uses a similar system, rewarding parlay players with 10 times as many cash-back credits as those who make straight bets. 

But if you’re really in a hurry to get a comp, make sure you stop by the racebook. The projected hold of race bets is 18 percent, according to gaming regulators. Predictably, players who are willing to take these odds can expect a few more perks.

At the Las Vegas Hilton, for instance, the comp system awards $1 for every $220 of sports play, but it takes just $33 in race bets for the same payback. 

“The racebook is the one place in the casino where we actually want people to win,” the MGM’s Stoneback said. “Because then they’ll bet more, and we’ve got that guaranteed win locked up.”

The general consensus among sportsbook executives is that they want to extend benefits to players as much as they can, but need to make sure that they protect the property’s bottom line, particularly at a time when gaming revenues have been on a steady decline for several years.

“The comps are part of our service, but I think the bean counters are taking a look and, let’s face it, they put a pretty sharp pencil to these things and make sure we are devoting our resources in the best possible way,” Cox said. “That’s just the nature of the beast. If you’re not a profitable customer for the casino, you really shouldn’t expect a lot back in the way of comps.”

The Las Vegas Hilton’s Kornegay voiced a similar refrain, emphasizing that his book’s wagering options are the primary means by which the business serves its customers.

“I think we have a very liberal comp system,” Kornegay said. “We truly believe in our service and product. Our extensive betting menu and aggressive oddsmaking are the keys to our success.

“But, you also have to treat your players right. You have to listen, learn and understand the needs of your players. When we do have to say ‘no,’ I want them to understand why.”

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