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David Kihara

Sports Books Court Thousands Of Tourney Fans

21 March 2005

LAS VEGAS -- On the second day of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, Tim Treanor of Atlanta was sitting in the massive sports book of the Las Vegas Hilton, beer in hand, cheering loudly.

It was a little after two in the afternoon on Friday and Treanor, like the hundred-plus sports fans surrounding him, was staring intensely at one of the 11 giant-screen televisions showing the men's basketball games.

North Carolina had moments before toppled Oakland 96-68 in "the closest 28-point game ever," one person joked. As that game ended, Treanor switched his attention to the last 20 seconds of the University of Central Florida and Connecticut game.

Then he focused on the last few minutes of the Southern Illinois vs. Saint Mary's game. After that, it was the New Mexico-Villanova game.

"It's college hoops. There's nothing more you can say," Treanor said when asked why he flew almost 2,000 miles to watch a series of basketball games he could easily have watched from the comfort of a neighborhood bar.

Treanor was far from alone. Tens of thousands of sports fans converged upon Las Vegas to watch the first two rounds of the men's basketball tournament through the weekend.

In the past two decades, the number of people coming to Las Vegas specifically for March Madness has skyrocketed, turning the once obscure college competition into a sports event on par with the Super Bowl in terms of how much money is wagered in the state's sports books.

However, there was a cloud hanging over the weekend's festivities.

On Thursday night Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., a well-known former college football coach, introduced legislation that would ban betting on college and non-professional sporting events.

Osborne, who has introduced this bill on separate occasions to limited success, said gambling often corrupts young players, and a single bet can turn into "a fixation that cannot be controlled."

"I believe that gambling on college athletics is wrong and threatens the integrity of the competition, whether gambling is done legally or illegally," Osborne said via e-mail.

The debate to ban betting on college sports, however, had yet to reach the Las Vegas Hilton's race and sports book, where Treanor, an IT consultant, was discussing the day's games.

Treanor, who came to Las Vegas with four pals, said this year marked the fourth year he came to town for the tournament. Describing the trip as "the guy thing" -- his wife was planning a trip to southern Florida with several of her friends -- Treanor said he came to Las Vegas so he could bet on the various games, simultaneously watch upward of four basketball games and take advantage of free beers served by cocktail waitresses.

"I tip the waitresses and pay a dollar for the beers," he said.

Jay Kornegay, the executive director of the Las Vegas Hilton's race and sports book, said that the number of tournament fans has increased dramatically during the past 20 years. He attributes much of that to the hype and buildup of the event on networks such as ESPN and the enhanced coverage on major networks such as CBS.

The increased interest in the games clearly translates to amplified profit for the casino. On a typical Saturday, the hotel's sports book will issue about 600 betting slips, but that number is expected to rise to 1,500 on each day of the sporting event, Kornegay said.

He said the staff for the sports book rises dramatically as well, with the number of valets, parking attendants, cocktail waitresses and tellers boosted to accommodate the crowds. Many of those employees also put in 12- to 14-hour days, which can be exhausting, he said.

"I always look forward to the start of the NCAA, but by the time we get to the Final Four, we're ready to take a break," Kornegay said.

He dismissed the Osborne bill as "feel-good legislation" and "modern day prohibition" and said it likely wouldn't pass. Even if it does pass, he said it wouldn't curtail gambling -- it would only drive it underground.

"If you go out and ask the people on the gaming floor if they would quit gambling, they won't say, 'Oh, I won't bet on college games anymore.' They will say, 'I guess I got to go make a few calls' to a private bookmaker," he said.

To be sure, there is a lot of money to be made on the NCAA tournaments. Frank Streshley, senior research analyst for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, said the board only keeps the numbers for the gaming revenue for all basketball-related bets and does not break it down by NBA and NCAA.

In February 2004, the amount waged on basketball games was $77.1 million. In March 2004, that number skyrocketed to $163.9 million, and dropped to $54.9 million in April 2004.

"The spike is obviously the NCAA tournament," he said.

By way of comparison, gamblers waged $90.8 million on the 2005 Super Bowl in Nevada sports books, he said.

The figures don't take into account the amount of money brought in by online betting sites, which also profit handsomely from the NCAA., one of the largest online betting sites in North America, averages around 50,000 bets per day but has seen those numbers double to 100,000 per day during March Madness.

Calvin Ayre, the founder and chief executive of, said that the convenience of online betting has certainly attracted more and more people to sites such as, but it doesn't take away from the "all encompassing experience" of Las Vegas.

Online betting sites don't have "banks of giant screen TVs, no showgirls, no Elvises and no free beer," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "But no parking problems, no line-ups, no hotel bills, no airplane tickets, heck ... no pants required."

Of course, pants were required at a completely different scene on the other side of the Strip; New York-New York's sports book was slightly more boisterous than the Hilton's. Since the sports book at New York-New York is much smaller, with seating only for about 20 people, many fans were watching the games in the ESPN Zone's bar and restaurant.

On Friday night, the bar downstairs at the ESPN Zone was standing-room only, with sports fans nudged against one another, shouting when their favored team gained a point and jeering when the opposing team scored a basket.

One particularly enthusiastic group was wearing coordinated orange Syracuse T-shirts and applauded loudly during their game against Vermont.

Matt Bennett, the vice president for public affairs of Third Way, a political advocacy group based in Washington, was part of that group.

"We couldn't get a seat in the sports book because it was so crowded," he said. A longtime Syracuse fan, he said he flew out for March Madness because watching the tournament in Las Vegas was as close to the experience of attending the game live as he was going to get.

Rogan Kersh, 40, was standing to his right. A political science professor at Syracuse, Kersh said he had come to Las Vegas the past three years to watch the tournament.

"Out of 64 games, you are going to see some wonderful games," Kersh said. "Plus, nationally, all people have one or two teams that they root for, so nationally, all people like (the tournament)."

Although Kersh and Bennett had all wagered on various games, they were slightly conservative bets. Both men said they would wager approximately $500 on four days of basketball games.

It was the betting, in fact, that made the various games most interesting for Bennett and Kersh. Both agreed that their interest in a minor NCAA game is heightened when there is money riding on it.

"There is no way people are going to be on the edge of their seats for a game like Delaware," Kersh said, referring to the matchup between Delaware State and the favored Duke on Friday.

When asked their views on the proposed ban on college betting, Bennett replied: "The gentlemen from Syracuse vote 'nay.' "

By Sunday the crowds at both the Las Vegas Hilton and New York-New York had thinned. In the ESPN Zone, the crowds had waned even as the last of the weekend's games were being played.

One person who was still in high spirits on Sunday night was Bethany Mockerman, a 22-year-old student at Oregon State University. Mockerman and several friends from OSU were spending their spring break in Las Vegas, and they were drinking in the second-floor bar in the ESPN Zone.

The last tournament game of the weekend had ended a few minutes before, and Mockerman was tallying up the amount of money she lost on various bets during the NCAA -- about $50, she said.

While the main focus of their trip was March Madness, she said that the spring break in Las Vegas was almost as much fun as the various basketball games she had watched.

When asked why she came to Las Vegas for March Madness, she replied, "Are you serious? There are so many fun people here."