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Tim O'Reiley

Vegas sportsbooks come alive during tournament

18 March 2011

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Nine in the morning is waaaaaay too early for most of the Strip.

That is the time for maintenance crews to replace burned-out streetlights and polish escalator railings. Conscientious visitors take advantage of empty sidewalks to go for a run, knowing that if they wait a few more hours, they will bump into other pedestrians or people handing out cards for escorts every third step.

But 9 a.m. at the sports books on Thursday morning, the tip-off for the first game of March Madness, was often too late to get a seat, perhaps for the rest of the day. Marv Bjugan of Minneapolis wound up at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas after hitting standing-room-only at Harrah's Las Vegas Casino & Hotel and a betting line at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino that snaked more than 50 feet into the adjacent shopping mall.

"Since (the Cosmopolitan) is new, we thought it might be a little quieter," Bjugan said. He did round up enough seats there for the group of 14 he came with.

Although lacking the fireworks show of New Year's Eve, the gaudy TV ratings of the Super Bowl or a live event such as the National Finals Rodeo, the NCAA men's basketball tournament has emerged as one of Las Vegas' top weekend events. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority does not put out numbers on the event's economic impact because it cannot track who comes just for basketball.

But Tom Mikovits, marketing director at South Point Hotel Casino and Spa, said, "It is definitely one of the top five weekends of any year."

Besides the kaleidoscopic betting combinations from 48 games in four days, "There are usually one or two Cinderellas that make the Sweet 16 round," said Bob Scucci, the race and sports book director for Boyd Gaming. "That always helps out."

He estimates the total wagering will top $100 million during the first two rounds, compared with the $87.5 million for this year's Super Bowl, as tracked by the Nevada Gaming Control Board. The board does not publish a basketball number.

Once the field narrows, Scucci added, the activity drops substantially.

But it is a traditional Las Vegas selling point that still works. John Stomberger and Keith Tarter of Danville, Ky., said they probably would have come even if their teams, Louisville and Kentucky, had missed the cut.

"But we obviously have a vested interest," said Stomberger, as he rubbed his thumb back and forth against his first two fingers.

Beyond the gambling, the tournament has grown into a social event that fuses elements of reunion and guys weekend out. Pat King of San Francisco, who obtained an MBA at Notre Dame, said he is not much of a basketball fan.

"Are they playing?" he asked only half-jokingly.

Instead, he said, he and six of his friends from Chicago, all of whom attended the University of Illinois as undergraduates, have gotten together during the tournament for seven of the past 10 years.

Four brothers and the sisters of the Moore family, all of whom now live in different cities, arrived at Lagasse's Stadium well before the first game to grab seats. Their Texas A&M Aggies don't play until today.

"This is a mini family reunion, and we're all basketball fans," said Bill Moore, who lives in Dallas.

The influx of tourists gives a lift to some of the hotel room rates for an industry searching for any financial boost it can get.

The $199-a-night lowest rate at Aria for Thursday was at least $20 higher than any Thursday through the end of April except for next week, when a major convention is in town. Rio dropped from $159 to $49 two Thursdays from now; the change was from $199 to $169 at Wynn.

But some restaurant and bar operators have to make adjustments depending on the type of crowd they get. Because so many people at Lagasse's Stadium stay put for hours on end, some of them after getting in line more than an hour before the 7:30 a.m. opening, a $200 minimum tab was required for people who took seats or tables, general manager Daniel Lydia said.

Normally, the combination restaurant, bar and sports book with theater seating has no minimum. But restaurants thrive on people leaving to make way for others, known as turning tables, which does not happen during March Madness.

"We think it's a great event, but we need to make a profit," Lydia said. "But we think nobody minds it. It's a good problem to have."

Minutes after seeing his alma mater Butler win in the last 0.1 second, Rob Bruyn of Nashville, Tenn., agreed. "You can gamble on the games, and you're here with 700 of your best friends and worst enemies," he said, having come to Las Vegas for 13 straight tournaments. "You can't get atmosphere like this at home, so it's worth every penny."

A potential threat to March Madness as a tourist draw emerged this year. For the first time, CBS and TBS broadcast all of the games, instead of switching back and forth between them. Because of that, Patrick Town and Justin Jacobs of Austin, Texas, both Duke grads, will switch their annual basketball trip to the conference tournaments that wind up a week before March Madness. This year, Jacobs admitted, "We both have newborn babies at home, so we both needed a break."

Garth, who paused before giving his last name as Johnson, had come from Los Angeles with a friend who could put the wings and beer on a corporate expense account.

"You've got all this energy here," he said. "Win or lose, it's a huge event."
Vegas sportsbooks come alive during tournament is republished from