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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Casinos Big Fans of NCAA Tourney

17 March 2005

LAS VEGAS --Thousands of basketball fans are expected to press their luck today on the first day of the NCAA tournament in a betting bonanza that has become one of the strongest weekends of the year for Strip casinos.

While the basketball tournament won't draw as many big bets as the Super Bowl, the number of bets -- a function of a marathon 48 games played over four days -- is expected to be much higher, casino representatives say.

Unlike the Super Bowl, where some properties have historically hosted VIP parties and special promotions, properties will simply open the doors for hordes of basketball fans who will fill sports books, bars and lounges to root for their team.

Casinos say they also expect a wide variety of viewers to show, from hard-core bettors to casual gamblers and groups who use the games as an excuse to take in other Las Vegas attractions.

"It's four days of Super Bowl," said MGM Grand Race and Sports Book Manager Lamarr Mitchell. "There are so many opportunities for games, (bettors) don't just lay down all their money at once. They space it out."

Parent company MGM Mirage expects all of its Strip hotels to sell out this year, while certain areas of the casino will get "extremely busy," spokesman Alan Feldman said.

Casual dining restaurants, sports books and "all of the bars" will be packed, while luxury outlets and top shelf restaurants won't be as busy as other times of year such as the New Year holiday, he said.

The company's most expensive property, Bellagio, is fetching $499 per night compared with $399 last week when the NASCAR race was in town, Feldman said. MGM Grand is $399 compared with $269 last week, he said.

Feldman said MGM Mirage also will benefit from the ConExpo-Con/Agg construction trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center as well as a Saturday boxing match between Erik Morales and Manny Pacquiao.

The construction show is expected to draw an estimated 135,000 people while a greater-than-capacity crowd of more than 17,000 is expected to come for the fight.

Down the street, Mandalay Bay is sold out through Saturday, with canceled rooms priced at $599 per night.

"We will have people lined up to pay that rate this weekend," property spokesman Gordon Absher said.

Caesars Entertainment Inc. properties, clustered around Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard, also will be at or near capacity this weekend.

The company also is charging significantly more for rooms this time around than last year. That's because of room remodeling efforts at Caesars Palace, Flamingo and Bally's as well as several new attractions at Caesars Palace that include an outdoor Roman plaza and ampitheater as well as an expansion of the Forum Shops mall, Caesars spokesman Michael Coldwell said.

Boyd Gaming Corp., which bought Coast Casinos Inc. last year, expects a busy weekend, especially at the Stardust "given its renowned sports book," spokesman Rob Stillwell said.

"We're bracing for a busy few weeks," he said. "Given the economy things are going very, very well," he said.

The NCAA tournament is the kind of event that "works on many different levels," Absher said.

"It's not a college spring break-type weekend," he said. "Adult men will contact their college buddies they haven't seen in 10 years and say, 'Let's get together in Vegas.' The guys will sit in the sports book and the girls will go to the spa or go shopping. Fathers, sons and families will come together who share the same alma mater."

"People have argued that the second-best place to be if you can't be at the (Super Bowl) game is Las Vegas," he said. "Others have argued that for the first day of the NCAA tournament it's better to be in Las Vegas than one of the actual venues. In Las Vegas you can see every event of every game in a packed sports book beside like-minded sports fans that get the same thrill out of the game as you do."

"And on Friday morning you get to wake up and do it all over again," he said.