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Best of Benjamin Spillman
Benjamin Spillman

Start the Madness

25 March 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Brian Morgan could have driven three hours and watched his Wisconsin Badgers play the first round of NCAA Tournament live in Omaha, Neb.

Instead Morgan, along with three friends, traveled more than 1,500 miles to Las Vegas and Thursday morning planted themselves in front of a flat screen in the 40/40 Club at the Palazzo.

"Omaha doesn't have $20 vodkas," cracked Morgan, 29, of Ottumwa, Iowa.

"And if they did, we would care there," his buddy, Scott King, 48, chimed in. "But we don't care here for some reason."

It's probably because instead of sitting on plastic stadium seats in Omaha -- home of billionaire Warren Buffett and the place where explorers Lewis and Clark held their first meeting with American Indian leaders -- the group sprawled on cushy white chairs in front of a huge flat-screen television in a party lair founded by hip-hop mogul Jay-Z.

King makes several trips to Las Vegas a year, mostly for business.

"But this is the trip we look forward to," he said of their second visit to Las Vegas to watch the opening round of college basketball tournament games.

There aren't any statistics available on how many people visit Las Vegas for the tournament or how much they bet on college games.

But the first weekend of tournament play is traditionally busy for hotels, and betting on basketball jumps more than $100 million from February to March. In 2007 gamblers bet about $228 million in March on basketball compared with $107.2 million in February, the Nevada Gaming Control Board reported.

The 40/40 Club opened early Thursday and added breakfast to its menu to accommodate tournament customers.

Marketing director Anthony Gibbons bounced around the club, walkie-talkie in hand, checking on customers.

He popped into several VIP rooms, which rent for as much as $5,000, to make sure everyone was happy.

Customers were sparse in the club's VIP rooms, most had just a half dozen people or fewer lounging in front of screens.

The main floor was more crowded, with most of the sofa-style seating on risers filled.

Westin Benzing, 36, a Michigan State fan who regularly attends games, skipped visiting Denver to see the Spartans in person in favor of watching it on television in Las Vegas.

"You see more on TV," said Benzing, of East Lansing, Mich.

His friend, Robert Mooski, 36, of Milwaukee, said the view was better at the club, with 85 screens, than at most sports books.

"The sports books could use some improvement," Mooski said. "I can go to Milwaukee and get a better seat in the house than at most sports books. That blows me away."

Mooski trailed off when he looked out from his sofa seat at the 40/40 Club.

"If they had a setup like this ... ."

Still, it seemed slow for one of the biggest sports weekends in Las Vegas at a sports bar run by one of the hottest names in pop culture.

But Jay-Z can take heart. Judging by room rates, it seems slow everywhere in the valley.

In addition to a national recession that's depressed room rates and prompted tourism boosters to spend millions on additional Las Vegas marketing, the opening weekend of the tournament coincides with Easter.

"Every year, Easter is a lot slower than normal," said Michael Zaletel, owner of the hotel-booking Web site

Friday and Sunday are Christian holy days.

"They are not going to bypass those to go to Vegas for the NCAA Tournament," Zaletel said.

Last year the average daily room rate was $124 for people checking out Sunday of the tournament's opening weekend. This year it is $95, according to Zaletel's data.

Rooms at the Rio booked through the site fetched an average daily rate of $260 last year. This year it was $126.

"That's a pretty tough sign," he said.

Even luxury hotels are cutting their prices.

Rooms at The Venetian were $199 on Thursday through the site and $219 for Friday and Saturday.

"That is as cheap as it gets on weekends," Zaletel said.

The upshot is rarely does Strip-style March Madness action coincide with Christmaslike room rates.

"Normally, at the last minute you couldn't even get a room," Zaletel said. "It would be a fortune."