LAS VEGAS — Someone who can pick football winners--and someone who can't--will own a new $150,000 lakeside home when the NFL season ends, courtesy of the Palace Station casino.
At Caesars Palace, $22,500 is being offered each week to the top three football handicappers; across the street, the Barbary Coast is giving away $250,000 during the 16-week pro season.
In a city where sports betting is legal, football contests are the latest craze, with casinos competing with each other for customers by offering homes, cars, dinners and cash.
"It's unbelievable what these contests have done," said Jimmy Vaccaro, manager of the sports book at Bally's hotel-casino. "Five years from now, there will be a contest in Las Vegas where they give away a million dollars."
The lure of instant riches has prompted thousands of Las Vegans to spend a few dollars a week for the chance to pick the winners of 14 weekly NFL games.
"There's not a single contest in Las Vegas that's not in favor of the player," said Sonny Reizner, sports book manager at the Castaways. "The casinos aren't out there to make money on them, they're out there for goodwill and to generate traffic. Every contest gives the player a chance at a sizeable prize at the expense of the casino."
In most of the contests, players pay a $25 or $50 entry fee for the entire season, with casinos paying cash prizes of up to $15,000 for weekly winners and $25,000 for the overall season winner.
The ante was increased this year by the Palace Station, when it offered lakeside homes for the best--and the worst--overall records at the end of the season. It also offered cars, Jeeps and boats to the second- and third-place finishers--in addition to $6,000 in cash prizes each week for the best and worst contestants.
More than 15,000 people responded to the casino's advertising blitz and paid $25 to join the contest. Long lines snaked around the casino the night before the contest deadline, as fans swarmed to get their entries in.
"Everyone brags about giving away money, but this is something really substantial," said Keith Glantz, manager of the Palace Station sports book. "You can move right in to one of these homes when the season ends."
Glantz said his casino will lose money on the actual contest, but hopes to make it up on the added traffic it generates.
"Your mother has as good a chance as the professional gambler next door because we limited entries to only one per person," he said. "We've got housewives that have never watched a football game in this contest because they dream about winning one of the houses."
Another 3,500 people risked $50 this football season to enter the long-running Barbary Coast contest, where $10,000 is given to each weekly winner or winners and $25,000 goes to the overall winner at the end of the season.
"There's no point-spread involved so everybody has a chance," said Jerry Ludt, the casino's sports book manager. "We get a lot of women in it and it brings in a lot of people each week that might make some other bets."
At Caesars Palace, the contest is geared toward tourists--each week there is a separate contest and there is no season-long winner. Hundreds of people pay $20 a week to try to win the $15,000 first prize, $5,000 second money or $2,500 third prize.
"We look at it as a way of keeping people happy," said Lou D'Amico, the sports book manager at Caesars. "Our fourth- through sixth-place winners each week get a weekend at Caesars with rooms, food and the whole bit."
The contest that attracts the most serious bettors, however, is at the Castaways, where the professional players pick against the point-spread for a first prize of $130,000 for the overall winner.
Twenty-nine contestants paid $5,000 each to enter the "Ultimate Challenge." Another 152 put up $1,000 each to get in the casino's other contest, which offers $83,000 for first place.
"The other contests are based on quantity, ours is on quality," Reizner said. "We have more serious entrants and more serious results. We get people that come in from out of state and live here for 16 weeks just so they can be in the contest."