The opening rounds of the NCAA tournament aren’t just the biggest basketball games of the season, they’re also one of the biggest gambling events of the year. The state of Nevada even handles more money for college basketball’s postseason than it does during the Super Bowl. From the first game of the first round until the title game 20 days later on April 9, thousands flock to Las Vegas and put their money on the line.
Most of the betting is concentrated to the first two rounds of the tournament, during which five-figure bets are common, as is consuming alcohol. The Cosmopolitan said they went through 36,000 beers during the first three days of last year’s tournament.
To get a feel for how Vegas handles the Big Dance, Sports Illustrated spoke with three casino executives: Johnny Avello, executive director of race and sports operations at the Wynn Las Vegas; Brian Benowitz, senior vice president of casino operations of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; and Jason Simbal, vice president of risk management for CG Technology, which operates The Cosmopolitan’s sportsbook.
How do you set your betting lines?
Johnny Avello: I have what you call power ratings on every team. So when I say every team, I’m talking about the major schools that play week in and week out, starting from November right up and through March. Those ratings are adjusted on a weekly basis based on the team’s performance ... Once I have all [the] matchups, I go to those ratings and make my numbers, and then I release those numbers that night.
Jason Simbal: We have on staff an analytics side of the company, which is a bunch of guys who are making the opening lines. These guys are watching the Selection Show just like you, me and everybody else; and as the matchups get set up, they’re putting together the point spread. We’ll have a general knowledge of probably about 50 of the teams, or even more, that are going to make it. There are usually some questionable bubble teams, so we already have all the data and the research done for 95% of the field. It’s just a matter of who is playing who, so once the matchups become set in stone, we’ll put all that math together and then those guys will create a line and send those out to my team, which is responsible for putting out the line and making it available for betting. Within about 60 to 90 minutes after those matchups are announced, we are ready to go and start taking bets.
What’s the scene like in your casino and on The Strip as a whole?
JA: It’s mayhem everywhere, to be honest with you, but at the Wynn, I walk in the door at 6:30 in the morning on Thursday, the first day. That happens to be St. Patrick’s Day this year. I’ll walk in the door and every seat will be taken in the sportsbook ... Anywhere where there’s a bar area with TVs, it will be filled. That’s the experience of the first round of the tournament. Everywhere has every seat or every spot taken up.
Brian Benowitz: The atmosphere really throughout the entire casino for the first two days is lunacy. There’s people up early in the morning, they start lining up by 6 a.m. to try and get a seat in the race and sportsbooks all over town ... It’s a ton of fun for a long period of time. You never know quite what’s happening because there’s always various cheers throughout the entire casino as people are rooting things in, a long-shot hit something, buzzer-beaters, things like that. It is really a kick.
How much college basketball do you watch during the season?
JS: I watch a ton. More than I’d like to sometimes, it seems. For example, on Saturday, I was watching games from eight in the morning until six at night, and then checking scores of the games after I’m gone. So it’s definitely a lot. As the NFL winds down and ends, the college basketball season picks up because between NBA and college hoops, that’s really all we have right now in terms of things that get a lot of volume, and with college basketball, there’s just so many games.
What’s your typical day like during the opening rounds of the tournament?
JA: As the bets are coming in, my staff is adjusting the lines as the bets come in. But they’re also calling me [saying], “This guy wants to bet so much a game, this guy wants to bet $50,000 or $100,000,” whatever the bet might be. So I’m getting calls on extended-limit wagers. Then the games, once they start, they’re staggered. So they go from about nine in the morning to nine at night for the first three days. And then Sunday the formats are a little different. I’m in the middle of all that’s going on, my staff calling me, asking me questions about this guy wants to bet this or that. We’re also doing halftimes on every single game, putting up second half lines when the first half is over. And then we’re adjusting the prices on the future books as these teams win and lose, taking them out, adjusting the odds on a team to win maybe the region or the whole thing. For me, my staff, all my ticket writers, it’s just an ongoing hectic process for three days.
BB: It’s making sure the experience on the casino floor is ready to handle the volumes that we’re going to have. That we have appropriate staffing at all levels, that we open the proper amount of dice games, that the games that are in front of the new race and sportsbook are open in time for the guests to get here. We’ve got to make sure we have enough cold beer. It’s amazing the amount of beer we go through. You’ve got to make sure you start chilling it early.
How much is bet on the tournament as a whole?
JS: The state of Nevada publishes a revenue report so you can look up the handle. I pulled the March reports for the last couple of years, and if I extrapolate what we do during the NCAA tournament and use that as a sample of the whole, somewhere between $200 and $225 million in total handle is what the state will do on the NCAA tournament.
BB: There are 16 games on Thursday and 16 games on Friday, and the games speak for themselves. There’s always one starting and one stopping and halftime wagers and things like that. People parlaying the overs and the unders. For the Super Bowl, you have one game that starts. And then there might be a halftime wager and things like that. So there’s just far, far more volume in tickets written.
JS: Yeah, the quantity of tickets written is about four times [that] of the Super Bowl. Another thing [Benowitz] mentioned is parlays (which are two or more bets linked together). [They] are huge. We’ll do over 10% of our full-year’s volume of parlays just on those first four days. That’s huge.
What do you consider a big bet?
JA: During the tournament itself, the first portion of it, it’s not unusual to see multiple five-figure bets. $20,000, $50,000—those types of bets. There’s going to be those types of bets on all the early rounds. When we get to the Final Four or the final game, you may see bets that are in the six-figure range, a couple hundred thousand, those type of bets. The money just gets a little big bigger when you’re down to isolated games.
Do you ever feel bad when people lose money to you?
JS: Feel bad? I don’t know if that’s the way I would put it. No matter how good you do, there are people who win. There are two sides of the game. We never are lopsided 100% in a game. There’s always someone that’s going to win and there’s always someone that’s going to lose.
BB: We’re more about managing the experience and the excitement level. Players win and players lose. We’re happy when our guests win, and we’re there for them when they lose.
Who do you like this year?
BB: I like the experience level of Kansas, and I think the Big 12 is playing by far the best basketball. I’m going to go with Kansas to win it all.
JS: I would say from a team that’s got relatively long odds but definitely has a chance, I would maybe take a flier on West Virginia. They’re in like the 30-to-1 range. The Big 12, as [Benowitz] mentioned, is excellent. They’ve quietly become the second-best team in that conference, so I think they’ve got a good shot at long odds, so I’d say bet a little, win a lot. Try that.
JA: Kansas is playing well right now, so I expect Kansas to be in the mix. In the mix means making it to the Elite Eight, Final Four, that type of thing. Winning it all, you need some breaks along the way. Other teams that you might look at, Xavier has had a great year and they look really tough at times to knock off, a team like that could also be in the mix.