March Madness in Vegas, Baby, Vegas: Watching the Big Dance in Sin City
- Las Vegas is the gambling capital of the world, and no weekend is bigger on the Strip than when the Big Dance tips off.
LAS VEGAS—Let us first recognize our friend in the green T-shirt, the paunchy fellow with the wobbly knees and the wasted eyes. Let us praise the nobility of his efforts, for at least he tried to beat the gastrointestinal buzzer en route to the bathroom. And even in lopsided defeat, a full free throw’s distance outside the men’s entrance of the Mirage Race & Sports book, let us acknowledge how he never once broke stride as his dinner retched onto the carpet.
Let us condemn his choice of casino buffet shrimp.
Finally, let us herald the three thankless women dispatched to clean up, one of whom started tossing towels onto the mess while muttering only, “Motherf-----, motherf-----, motherf-----.”
It’s around 9 p.m. last Friday, a holy trinity of social holidays in this city that, in all likelihood, has already produced plenty of similar incidents at other properties along the Strip: college spring break, St. Patrick’s Day and, most popularly, the first weekend of March Madness.
On the Mirage’s towering 85-foot projection screens above the buy windows, the last two matchups of the first round—Miami vs. Michigan State and South Carolina vs. Marquette—are winding down. The place is packed and has been since betting opened some 14 hours ago, even though both games have become tension-free blowouts. So let us last recognize the wisdom of the fan repping University of Michigan maize, watching along the back rail of the Mirage. The only drama tonight, he remarks, came in seeing whether those who leaving the bathroom would accidentally step in the puddle of . . .
The Spartans and Gamecocks each win by 20.
He wasn’t wrong.
Earlier that morning, the line to place bets at the Westgate Last Vegas Resort & Casino already stretches several hundred deep. It winds beneath 60-plus TVs of different sizes and the dizzying screen of glowing odds, around more than 350 pre-reserved seats in the pit. It seems to regenerate like an earthworm, its tail always ending near the bar that’s stocked with 150 buckets of Bud Light. It almost, but not quite, reaches a private room called the “Ultimate Fan Cave,” where both rows of recliners are already filled by folks nursing coffee and planning their next plays.
It’s 7:15 a.m. The first game—of 16 today—doesn’t tip off for two more hours.
Behold the singular spectacle of March Madness in Las Vegas—which, it has been recommended by this magazine and others, everyone should witness at least once. Where else will you see a towering man in UMass gear react to a turnover by yelling, “Come on Maryland, you’ve got to catch the ball”? Or hear someone in a No. 55 Jason Williams Sacramento Kings jersey stand up and scream LEZ GOOOO because Michigan State took a 28-23 lead against Miami in the first half? Like Woodward and Bernstein, attention here always first follows the money; when games end, the final horn is followed by two opposite, overlapping sounds: the thwacking of high-fives, and the tearing of betting slips. But don’t conflate financial interest with the absence of fandom, either. Everyone picks a side. That’s what makes it so damn wild.
“We were trying to figure out how the hell to make it bigger. We can’t.”
That’s Jimmy Vaccaro, a longtime local oddsmaker, who has managed books around the city for more than four decades, including at the Mirage and the MGM. Now it’s Friday afternoon and he’s leaning against a counter behind the buy windows at South Point, where he has been since August 2013. Located eight miles south of the Strip, a straight cab ride down Interstate 15, the hotel and casino seems to attract a slightly older, more local crowd than its more glittery counterparts.
(Grumpier, too. When a Seton Hall player short-arms a layup, a nearby senior whose Hawaiian shirt blends perfectly with the casino’s fake fauna, screams at the bank of monitors, “F--- you a------,” before wishing a horrible disease on the player’s family. Later, when the Pirates were whistled for a controversial flagrant foul in the waning seconds, he returns to bid the same about the officiating crew.)
Even so, the crowds keep to the same general demographics no matter where you wander in Las Vegas—mostly male, mostly young, dressed in khaki shorts and flip-flops, with golf pencils behind their ears. They roam in packs, sip free drinks and, at least on South Point’s floor, crush dollar hot dogs from an uber-convenient stand. Or, to mix meat metaphors, as one regular named Kenny says while puffing on a cigar and mulling a three-team parlay at the bar, “It’s a total sausage party.”
A cheer rolls through the crowd. From his perch, Vaccaro whips around at the televisions.
“What the f--- happened now?”
Always something. These days Vaccaro mostly mills around the book, watching movies in his office’s massage chair or recounting old stories. “They do all the work,” he says, motioning to the men and women behind the counter taking tickets and monitoring lines. “I do nothing. And proud of it.” But he's been around long enough to know how much March Madness has changed Las Vegas—and vice versa."There’s no comparison to what it used to be,” he says. When casino owner Michael Gaughan tabbed Vaccaro to open Royal Inn’s sports book in the late 1970s, “maybe there were 20 people watching the game. There were three windows at the Royal Inn, five at the Barbary Coast.”
What Vaccaro calls “the big kick” happened in '81. Then, ESPN began broadcasting every Thursday and Friday first-round game. As the field expanded and the start times staggered, more and more flocked to Las Vegas to get in on the booze, basketball and betting. In 1988, when he ran the book at Caesars Palace, Vinny Magliulo remembers one corporate meeting in which a bunch of bamboozled suits struggled to figure out, basically, “Why are we so crowded in March?” To Magliulo and his colleagues, the answer was obvious.
“Then the casinos started to get smart,” Vaccaro says. “They noticed people making reservations a year ahead of time and created packages. I was telling everyone, ‘This is going through the roof.’”
The roof is gone. (Ceiling, too, UNC fans.) All 200 seats in front of Vaccaro at South Point are currently occupied, plus the nearby bar area and another thousand in a ballroom upstairs. Earlier this month, when Las Vegas hosted four men’s and three women’s conference tournaments at various arenas, Vaccaro says it was standing room-only even for those. “We broke the wall down into mainstream America,” he says. “This is definitely a big part of what [the NCAA] does. It’s insane to try to deny it. Look at it. How can you deny this?”
The cash certainly cannot. On Friday, someone at South Point bet $20,000 to win $500 on No. 2 Louisville against No. 15 Jacksonville State. Last year, bettors laid roughly $295 million statewide on legal March Madness wagers, up from $263 million in ‘15. Though Nevada’s gaming control board doesn’t distinguish between college and professional basketball bets, it’s not unreasonable to peg this spring’s handle above $300 million. And that’s just what’s regulated. The American Gaming Association projects that we’ll put $10.4 billion total on the tournament, 97% of which will be illegal.
A not insignificant slice of that kosher tally will be credited to Derek Stevens, owner of the downtown D Las Vegas. On Selection Sunday, he appeared on former ESPN broadcaster Brent Musburger’s new radio show, which airs seven days a week from a studio on the South Point floor. It also simulcasts on the web, where viewers saw $325,000 cash in front of Stevens and Musburger, wrapped in gold paper. As the NCAA selection committee’s decisions were revealed, four South Point oddsmakers were given seven minutes to decide the lines. (Each threw out numbers, which were averaged.) Stevens then placed $11,000 on each game, on the spot. He lost $109,000.
But, as Musburger notes after his Friday afternoon show, sipping on a Guinness in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, the strength of this event comes in numbers. When Vaccaro estimates that “millions” swung on Oklahoma State guard Jawun Evans’ buzzer-beating three-pointer against Michigan—which didn’t change that the Cowboys lost, 92-91, but did help them cover the spread—most of that was shelled out in microscopic portions. “So many of these guys,” Musburger says, looking out the windows of his glass-walled studio, “this is where they spend their days and they meet their buddies. They may bet a $20 bill. We tell the stories about $352,000. Everyone’s fascinated about the whale. But this business is run by the little guys.”
So, the little guys. At the Westgate I met two longtime friends who had been coming here together for years. One married an Army officer who got stationed in Arizona; the other lived in North Dakota. This was their annual way of catching up.
At South Point, sports book director Chris Andrews came across a group of 10 fans of various teams from the Bluegrass State—Louisville, Kentucky and Northern Kentucky—all toasting together. “I’d wish you guys good luck, but I don't know who the hell you’re rooting for,” Andrews told them.
At MGM, midway through Thursday’s slate of games, I saw one guy standing with an iron ball chained to his ankle—tee up your marriage jokes—in a crowd of dudes cheering far louder than anyone reasonably should for Vermont vs. Purdue. “God bless,” one of them exhaled when the Boilermakers covered the -7.5 spread.
Truly, the only souls ignoring the action were the casino employees punching bets into the system, the waitresses shuttling drink orders for dollar-bill tips, and one woman dressed in a T-shirt and blue jeans, who meandered through the MGM crowd handing out business cards.
“You want to go to the strip club?” she asked.
No takers. No worries. Onto the next group.
“Yeah!” one guy excitedly said. He checked out the specials on the card. His eyes danced back toward the wall of screens. Then, without warning, he turned gravely serious. Offended, almost, at the timing of the request.
“Not right now, though.”