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Alan Snel

March Madness in Vegas: Busy hotels, Bud Lite and bustling books

21 March 2014

LAS VEGAS -- Many bachelor parties have strippers. Matt Weingast’s bachelor bash had hoopsters Thursday.

The 25-year-old New York law student isn’t getting married until August, but Weingast moved up his bachelor party to tie it into America’s annual raucous spring rite known as March Madness in Las Vegas this week.

That meant Weingast and five close pals from across the country converging at The Mirage sports book on the Strip, where thousands of NCAA college basketball tournament fans exploded in cheers and jeers when the giant video screen showed Dayton players celebrating a last-second, 1-point win over Ohio State.

Up and down the Strip on Thursday, college hoops fans from every corner of the United States were checking in to hotels, placing bets at bustling sports books and mixing testosterone with Bud Light and small hills of nachos. It added up to big business for Las Vegas’ resort industry.

Hotel occupancy rates trend up when March Madness grips Sin City. Bear witness to the 97.7 percent citywide occupancy rate for the national tournament’s first weekend in 2013. Last year, March Madness — with big-time sports events such as NASCAR races, spring break revelers and convention attendees — helped deliver 3.54 million visitors to Las Vegas in March, the month with the most out-of-towners in 2013.

By comparison, for Super Bowl 2014, Las Vegas’ occupancy rate hit 86 percent, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

Weingast and members of his bachelor bash posse were each adding $1,600-$3,000 to the Las Vegas economy this week.

“Each person is on a different budget,” observed Patrick O’Connor, a Weingast friend who works for a gas trading company in Houston.

The economic impact is significant because March Madness draws sports book crowds that are three to four times bigger than the usual crowd, said Jay Rood, MGM Resorts International vice president of race and sports.

“In the beginning, you have 64 teams, alumni and fans who have allegiances to all these teams,” Rood said. “It’s an all-day thing, too. That’s the beauty of it. Most people are dedicated and they’ll be in the (sports book) room from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s sensory overload. Food outlets near the (sports) books are jammed.”

Rood said the four days of March Madness betting is expected to generate a sports book handle of $200 million, which would easily outpace the Super Bowl handle of $120 million.

“You have four mini-Super Bowls,” Rood quipped.

Las Vegas visitors each spend an average of $673 over 3.3 nights on nongaming expenses. But from interviews of March Madness visitors on the Strip on Thursday, the hoops fans are opening their wallets to a much wider degree.

At The Mirage, Harlan Kastein, 42, a golf pro, and Chad Perre, 42, an engineer, both from Appleton, Wis., wore red to back their Wisconsin Badgers. Each will spend $3,000-$4,000 this four-day weekend.

“Weather was a big driver,” Perre said of the motivation to spend March Madness on the Strip.

Across the street at Lagasse’s Stadium sports bar, fans each spent $300 a day to watch college hoops, make wagers and drink Bloody Marys and beer and eat burgers and pizzas.

About 1,500 fans Thursday were expected to pour into the 3,000-square-foot sports-watching mecca at the Palazzo, which underwent a $2 million renovation to replace TV screens and carpet, plus reupholster the couchlike seats in the five-tier, stadium-style viewing area. The four-day weekend is projected to lure 5,000 hoops fans to the sports bar, ranked among the best in the country.

The roundball Pied Piper of Lagasse’s Stadium is 49-year-old Indiana Hoosier Jen Wilfong from Carmel, Ill., outside Indianapolis, who reunited with her half-dozen hoops pals from California and Vancouver, B.C. to Illinois. The Wilfong-led basketball gang has spent the past six years in mid-March in row two of the tiered-seating area.

Wilfong, a Merrill Lynch executive coach and former Caterpillar Inc. marketing executive, spent $500 for airfare and $200 per night for four nights on the Strip. Throw in the $300 per day fee at Lagasse’s Stadium — and a little wagering — and it’s a budget of about $3,000 or so.

Wilfong’s gal pal Shelli McClellan of Washington, Ill., said it’s money well- spent.

“If we were home in Illinois, we’d be in front of the TV so you might as well be here.” McClellan said. “We explain this to the people back home, and they just think we’re nuts.”