A year ago, Art Manteris sat alone in the back of his sports car at the Red Rock Resort and Casino. He had been dealing with betting in Las Vegas since the late 70s, but he had never seen anything like this.
He was supposed to be in the middle of the madness of Thursday’s NCAA Tournament opener – nonstop basketball on high-definition wall-to-wall video screens while a packed house roared and groaned at every basket. Instead, Manteris was alone in the darkness. It was quiet, with only the occasional flickering light or the ringing of a slot machine that had not yet been turned off.
It was depressing, Manteris said, looking back. It was a sad and confusing time.
A coronavirus pandemic shut down sports activities last March, forcing Las Vegas to close its doors during one of the busiest and most lucrative times of the year. The NBA played on the 11th. March, and the NHL suspended the season the next day. Soon, warnings from Don Best Sports – a odds and information service used by American and international sports bettors – appeared on bookmakers’ screens announcing that one college basketball tournament after another would be cancelled. In a span of 48 hours, sports bettors went from over 100 games to virtually no live events.
The biggest blow to sports betting comes on one day, the 13th. In March, the NCAA announced the cancellation of the men’s basketball tournament, an event that is even more heavily bet on than the Super Bowl. Four days later, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak ordered the closure of casinos in the state. The coronavirus put an end to March Madness and shut down Las Vegas, leaving the entire sports world and the legendary city wondering what would happen next.
Now, in what appears to be a new world, madness has returned. The lights and video screens in Las Vegas sports betting offices have been back on for several months, and things are starting to get better by the day.
On Monday, Nevada regulators will raise the occupancy limit for gaming rooms to 50 percent per zone. That’s a 35% increase over the Super Bowl, and just in time for March Madness.
The first full days of this year’s NCAA Tournament will be held on the 19th. March over, with all games played in Indianapolis. For a year Manteris sat in his dark, silent sportsbook, wondering what would happen next. He sees this year’s tournament as another step to get back on track.
The strange feeling when the books went black.
Sports betting in Nevada averaged $32.7 million in March 2017 to 19. Last year, when the sport collapsed in March, book profits for the month fell to $1.5 million, down 95.5 percent from the year before. Nevada Gaming Control estimates that the 2019 NCAA Tournament featuring the state’s sports teams had an estimated value of $349 million, more than double that of this year’s Super Bowl.
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Overall, the NCAA tournament is the biggest event of the year that we book, said Manteris, now vice president of racing and sports at Station Casinos. It’s an important part of the business, so last year’s loss was a big blow.
March Madness is more about gambling and drinking beer, so of course our win rate [percentage] is much higher than the Super Bowl high rollers, said Jeff Stoneback, director of racing and sports at BetMGM Nevada.
Illinois, Iowa and Michigan are among the states that passed sports betting laws in 2019 and rushed to get them out the door before the NCAA tournament. Illinois launched its first legal offering on the 9th. March 2020. State athletic offices were ordered a week late.
Iowa sports bettors spent months preparing for the first taste of March Madness when the pandemic broke out. Wes Erekke, CEO of the Iowa Gaming Association, recalls surprised sports bettors calling after the Big Ten tournament was canceled to ask: What does this mean for betting?
Well, they won’t be, Erecki remembers saying to the appellants. For sports betting, it was unthinkable to completely stop everything when we got going.
See you on the 24th. In March 2020, all retail casinos in the United States were closed and the gambling industry was affected. About 649,000 workers were affected by the closures, according to the American Gaming Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents the casino industry in the U.S.
States that require bookmakers to personally fund their bets, such as Nevada and Iowa, were hit the hardest. Bookmaker William Hill U.S. has launched a car rally outside Arizona Charlie’s Casino, allowing bookmakers to deposit and withdraw funds into their mobile betting accounts from their cars.
Inside the casino and sportsbook, however, all remained dark and silent.
It was scary, said Stoneback, who works at the Mirage on the Las Vegas Strip.
What do we do now?
MGM would host the 2020 Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Stoneback remembers getting a call from the public relations department telling him that fans were not allowed to attend the tournament in person, and shortly thereafter the tournament was cancelled altogether.
The fans were looking for a reason to argue.
We had a lot of people in town, and the first few days there was a pretty big crowd in the gym betting on the horses because there was no other sport to bet on, Stoneback said. Our road bike did well for a few days when they were still in town, then it went bad.
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Everyone hoped the main sport would return within a few weeks, but as the suspension began in April and May, bookmakers and bettors began to look for alternatives. Table tennis tournaments in Ukraine and football matches in Belarus were suddenly on the agenda and attracted the attention of sports betting operators in the US. About $6.6 million was wagered on table tennis in Colorado sports betting last May, the largest total of any sport. The international online poker tournament on 24. March drew a record 93,016 participants and yielded a prize pool of $18.6 million, as well as high bids in the NFL Draft.
Meanwhile, the bookies have had to find ways to pay out unpaid bets. Many were sent to sports teams, but because workers worked from home, the process was delayed. There was also the question of which bets were still valid, such as the odds of winning the NBA title, and which would be reversed, such as the odds of winning the NCAA tournament.
Bookmaker William Hill has placed at least four five-figure bets on the winner of the college basketball national championship. All will be refunded the amount they paid, a disappointing outcome for bettors like Anthony Esposito, who committed money to teams for months only to get his money back.
Esposito, a 43-year-old professional gambler, bet on a handful of college basketball teams at the beginning of the season, including the Dayton Flyers against 50-1 odds, for several thousand dollars. Over the course of the season, the Flyers have become a real contender. Prior to the Atlantic 10 tournament, they were in 5th place and had a 12-1 chance at the national championship. Esposito’s ticket to the Flyers was valuable.
With everything that was going on, I didn’t even think about it at the time, said Esposito, who works with famed professional gambler Bill Krakkomberger. They think about more important things like health and family. And then when you look back, you look at [the futures betting], and we prepared pretty well for the tournament.
Esposito said there were some brief delays in his betting prospects as sportsbooks were put on hold to ensure the NCAA tournament was not played at a later date. But in most cases, the money from his futures bets came back into his accounts within a few weeks.
March Madness in Las Vegas is something special.
For years, chefs have coveted spots in the Mirage’s sports books for the night, taking turns while their partners head to the hotel room for a nap. Rumor has it that adult diapers are used to avoid toilet breaks.
To avoid uncomfortable situations, hotel officials eventually changed the rules and decided to ban sports betting on the nights before the tournament. Today, queues are forming in front of the sports betting hall as early as 4am, hoping to grab one of the few available seats that have not yet been reserved. By the time the first games are over at around 10am local time, the venue is overcrowded and dozens of people are lining up to place their bets.
I always said that if I left Las Vegas, the first four days of the tournament would be the only event I would come back to town for, Manteris said. There’s nothing more exciting than watching four regions at once, one game after another, with wins, losses and point spreads decided in the closing seconds.
In recent weeks, questions about the Las Vegas court have piled up in sportsbooks for this year’s tournament. It’s been a long road back, and there’s certainly still a lot of work to do for the country, Las Vegas and the sports world to recover from the pandemic. But we’re getting closer, and for basketball fans, it’s nice to have a different kind of craziness in their lives.
To me, this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic, Manteris said. I see this as the first step to getting back to normal. It will be an emotional moment.
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