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Kevin Smith

March Badness? A Sluggish Start for Bookmakers

24 March 2003

When it's all said and done, the list of losers from this year's NCAA Men's National Championship Basketball Tournament could include more than just Wake Forest and Florida.

Both schools went into the 64-team tournament as No. 2 seeds and were upset Sunday by No. 15 seeds, and sports books all over the world could take an equally devastating hit.

For starters, many sports bettors are preoccupied with the United States' full-scale war on Iraq and the 24-hour news coverage accompanying it.

Not helping matters, professional bettors tend to stay away from tournament betting action because there are very few "good buys" when it comes to the lines on the games.

Long-time handicapper Dave Cokin recommended only six of the weekend's 48 games to his clients. This, he said, is because the odds makers are particularly savvy when it comes to tournament games; unlike a normal weekend of college basketball, during which there could be nearly 150 games on the schedule, they can closely study all of the match-ups and produce fairly accurate prognostications.

"They really make it difficult for bettors to find value," Cokin told the Associated Press.

With a lack of professional bettors clamoring to lay action on tournament games, bookmakers traditionally have relied on casual bettors to fill their coffers during tournament time.

That all changed the day before the tournament started, though, when the bombs started falling on Baghdad and bettors' attention turned from the basketball court to the battle ground.

Peter Wilson, the media relations director for leading Internet sports book, said business has been affected by the war, but predicted things will pick up for the remainder of the tournament.

"As more and more people get back to work and start tuning out the media coverage, the casual bettor will come back to the tournament," Wilson said. "Of course, if the networks cut back their coverage that would have an impact too. On the other hand, if something major happens in Baghdad people might still be glued to their TVs."

He said the lull in betting following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, for example, only lasted a few days. And unlike the case of Sept. 11, no major sporting events--at least so far--have been cancelled. NFL, MLB, NASCAR and even EUFA Cup action were all put on hold in 2001.

Land-based sports books, meanwhile, are suffering alongside their Internet brethren.

"It's clearly going to have a negative impact on us," Mirage Race and Sports Director Robert Walker told the AP. "I can't tell you that we've dropped 10 percent, 20 percent or whatever, but it's hurt."

Jay Kornegay, Imperial Palace's race and sports book director, said he has still seen large numbers of visitors to Las Vegas who make the pilgrimage every year to take in tournament action and lay down bets on games.

"From what I can tell now, there is still enthusiasm for the tournament, though the war is on everyone's minds," he said.

Wilson and Walker both said the opening day of the tournament was a good one for them. With casual bettors and younger gamblers making up a majority of the punters for the tournament, tendencies are to bet the favorites. On Thursday, underdogs went 13-3 in covering the spread, making it a good take for bookies. The big underdogs were sensational Thursday, as five of the six teams that were underdogs of 10 or more points covered the spread.

The tournament's Final Four round will start April 5, with the National Champion to be crowned April 7.

March Badness? A Sluggish Start for Bookmakers is republished from
Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith