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Chris Jones

Book Makers Ready to Say 'Hoop, Hoop Hooray!'

15 March 2004

The tip-off of March Madness -- the college basketball version -- is still more than three days away.

But for those setting the odds for nearly 80 percent of Nevada's sports books, the insanity of preparing for this month's National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament is already under way.

"For the whole month of March, NCAA basketball is bigger than the Super Bowl," said Kenny White, a longtime local oddsmaker and co-owner of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, who estimates about $100 million was wagered statewide on college basketball during March in each of the past two years.

White added the upset potential that frequents college basketball's premier event requires oddsmakers to devote the same attention to games involving small-school underdogs as they would those featuring perennial powerhouses.

"There's a little bit more work to this than for a typical regular-season game," White said. "I put as much time studying Hofstra as I would the University of Michigan."

If tradition holds, tens of thousands of hoop fanatics will also spend portions of the next few weeks studying various basketball matchups on their way to sports books' betting windows.

Last year, four March-inclusive weekends ranked among the city's Top 25 busiest two-day periods, the only month that can claim that distinction. Overall, more than 3 million people came to town last March, making it the city's fifth-best tourism month of 2003, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority data show.

"From a fan's standpoint, I don't think there's a more exciting two days than next Thursday and Friday," Art Manteris, vice president of race and sports book operations for Station Casinos, said of the tournaments's opening rounds.

"A lot of people will come to town to watch the different regions play. The Strip properties will be jammed, and even though it's not as crowded for locals casinos, it's also one of our busiest periods," he added. "People love that `do or die' format."

Few companies play a larger role in making or breaking a bettor's March experience than Las Vegas Sports Consultants. Since its launch in the early 1980s under the direction of handicapping legend Michael "Roxy" Roxborough, the company has grown its client base so that its seven full-time oddsmakers now set the initial betting lines for 115 of the state's approximately 150 legal sports books, including current clients such as Manteris' Station Casinos, MGM Mirage, Harrah's Entertainment and Boyd Gaming Corp.

And though the participants of this year's NCAA Division I basketball tournament won't be known until Sunday, that hasn't deterred White and company from handicapping the likely favorites in an effort to help their casino clients stay at least one-half point ahead of the betting public.

"We study the box scores, study the games and betting patterns and adjust power ratings to each game," White said, generally describing the odds-making practice for each of the 17 sports his service tracks.

Futures odds have long-since been posted, and White said his staff will update each team's odds once the field of 65 has been determined.

This year's NCAA men's tournament will tip off with a single game Tuesday, followed by 32 additional first-round contests March 18-19. Over the following two weeks, the field will be whittled down to the Final Four, which will compete for the title April 3 and 5 in San Antonio.

This year's tournament will be White's first go-round as co-owner of Las Vegas Sports Consultants. In November, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based sold the company to a group of local investors that included White; gaming attorney Ellen Whittemore; her husband, Jeff Patterson; as well as relatives David and Lesa Whittemore.

Terms of the sale weren't disclosed, though the transaction attracted national attention thanks in large part to SportsLine's relationship with the CBS television network.

CBS holds exclusive rights to broadcast the latter rounds of the tournament because of a $6 billion, 11-year deal that took effect nearly two years ago. The network also uses to publish its CBS Internet information service, and such close ties between its host television network and the company setting odds on college basketball games did not sit well with the NCAA, which looks uneasily upon any form of sports betting.

Despite his new role, White said he's comfortable in his job and feels no sense of added pressure marking this year's favorites.

Partner Ellen Whittemore added she's also pleased to see how clients have responded to several changes made under new ownership, including giving subscribers up-to-the-minute information such as recent team trends or key player injuries.

"We're always trying to add value to what we provide our clients," she said.