Early wagering on March Madness has sports books giddy

/ Las Vegas Sun

Bettors stand in line to make their wagers at the LVH sports book during the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament Thursday, March 20, 2014.

If March Madness seems a little madder than usual this year, you’re not hallucinating. Las Vegas sports betting pros say this year’s college hoops tourney could be one of the busiest ever for Las Vegas.

“It’s definitely been the busiest out of the last three (years),” said Frank Kunovic, director of specialty games for Caesars Palace, Rio and Harrah’s. “We’re sold-out with all our parties and our seats in the sports book. In fact, everything’s sold-out. It’s been very, very busy.”

It’s difficult to track the overall impact of March Madness on Southern Nevada’s casino industry. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority doesn’t track visitation and occupancy numbers for the event like it does for Super Bowl weekend or New Year’s Eve.

Nevada’s Gaming Control Board will provide numbers about March Madness betting. But officials caution that those numbers are only estimates based on informal communications with sports books, which aren’t officially required to report betting numbers surrounding the event.

“Our feedback from the operators is that approximately 70 percent of the basketball handle generated during the month of March is from college hoops,” said Michael Lawton, a senior research analyst with the board’s Tax and License Division.

“Last year, March’s basketball write (total amount wagered) was $422 million,” Lawton said. “That was an increase of $46.5 million, and it is estimated that 70 percent of that write was attributable to the NCAA tournament, approximately $295.4 million.”

The word from executives in sports books and hotels around town is that this year’s March Madness business will be good.

Kunovic said Caesars had to add more than 200 seats to its March Madness party. Ryan Thompson, vice president of marketing for Caesars Palace, Rio, and Harrah's, said the company’s hotels “will run at almost 100 percent occupancy across the city over the first round of games. We are showing 99 percent at Caesars Palace right now.”

Executives at MGM are seeing similar results.

"The first-round weekend and the 10 days following it is a very strong period for our properties,” said Micah Richins, senior vice president of hotel revenue management, MGM Resorts International. “Our Strip properties will be filled to capacity, and room rates will show excellent growth year over year as anticipated.”

The action isn’t limited to the Strip. Sports betting executives working downtown and at locals casinos also say this year will be the best in a series of good years.

Michael Grodsky, vice president of marketing and public relations for William Hill, which manages sports books for casinos throughout the Las Vegas Valley, said this year is shaping up to be a good one.

“This thing just keeps growing — just gets bigger and bigger,” Grodsky said. “Customers are calling to reserve seats at our casino partners, and those casinos are expanding their parties. It’s been crazy the last couple of weeks.”

Bob Scucci, director of race and sports for Boyd Gaming, said business “already seems a little more brisk than it was in years past. There’s more buzz around the betting lines and definitely more interest around the brackets.”

These executives say that as sporting events go, the Super Bowl still reigns supreme because of its broad-based appeal. But March Madness is closing in.

“The 2016 tournament, for example, was equal last year to the (2015) Super Bowl handle,” Grodsky said. That included all the future bets and props bets.

Kunovic said it’s the same for Caesars. “We hold a little less during March Madness typically than we do on the Super Bowl, but we also have more volume over the course of four days. The Super Bowl is only one day. Because in March Madness there are so many games on the opening weekend it brings in significant volume. More than the Super Bowl.”

Part of the reason for the discrepancy may be the nature of March Madness bettors. March Madness is growing in popularity, but it still tends to appeal to a more sports-focused gambler.

“Each year we are seeing a more and more diverse group,” Scucci said. “If you could go back 20 or even 10 or 15 years, it was a very nice crowd of college basketball fans, predominantly men and guys with enough disposable income to go out for a few days and gamble.

Scucci said he is seeing a broader demographic. “We’re seeing it open wider and wider, and we are seeing groups come in who are following a particular college,” Scucci said. “Both older and younger fans. It’s still predominantly more male. But we are starting to see the demographic change.”

Kunovic agreed that the Super Bowl has a wider appeal than March Madness, where the bettors are “usually a younger male crowd in their late 20s or early 40s.”