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NCAA PREVIEW / THE SCENE

School Pride? You Bet

Las Vegas awaits crush of college basketball fans who jam sports books in hopes of banking on their team loyalty

March 15, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — So you think you've got next weekend, the tip-off of the NCAA basketball tournament, all planned. You'll jump in your car or hop on a plane after work Wednesday, check into a Las Vegas hotel that night, have an early breakfast Thursday, wander over to one of the sports books just before the 9 a.m. start of the first games, place a bet, then grab a table in front of the wall of television screens that reach nearly to the ceiling.

Well, forget it. Unless you are willing to put in backbreaking hours, give up all but an hour or two of sleep here and there, stay dedicated and focused through 48 games and retain your resolve and your funds for a potential 288 wagering opportunities over a four-day span, this is not the place for you.

And that's assuming you can find a vacant room. Las Vegas is sold out for next weekend, although there are always scattered rooms, lesser hotels off the strip, small motels and vacancies in outlying areas such as Henderson.

Super Bowl week, culminating on Super Sunday, is the biggest single wagering event in Nevada -- more than $80 million was bet on the Patriots and Panthers this year. But in terms of sustained action over nearly a month, nothing rivals the NCAA tournament, which this year is expected to attract $80 million to $90 million in wagers.

"The sports book is definitely the place to be the first weekend of the tournament," said Scott Ghertner, director of promotions for MGM Mirage. "The atmosphere is electric. Fans come from all over the country. Where else can you watch 48 games in four days? The fans range from those who root for specific universities to the general gambler."

And they come early.

"It's impossible to find a seat in the sports book if you show up when the games start," said Tom Kapics, race and sports manager at Mandalay Bay. "People who want a good table start showing up at 2 a.m. People think I'm joking when I tell them that. A guest who stays at the hotel, wakes up at 8:30 in the morning, throws on a shirt and comes down here to place a bet might find himself 500th in line. We will have 13 windows open next weekend and you will find yourself 30th or 40th in line at any one of those windows by the time the games begin. And the lines never stop all day long, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"And it seems like we get busier and busier every year."

Those who can't get a table stand until the sports book is filled to capacity. "You won't even be able to see the color of our carpet," Kapics said.

"It's a madhouse," agreed Robert Walker, the director of the sports book at the MGM and the Mirage. "The cheering is nonstop."

So is the wagering. Bettors can wager on the first-half score, the second-half score and the final score, along with the over-and-under on total points for the first half, second half and overall. That's six potential bets on every game.

"There always another game, another halftime," Kapics said. "They start cheering when it is 2-0 in the first game of the day and it goes on with every basket all day long."

Although the sports books are packed for Super Sunday and the NCAA tournament, the clientele is different.

"The Super Bowl crowd is a little more mature," Walker said. "They generally have more money and are often here solely to gamble. With this tournament, it's a younger crowd that is here to have fun as much as gamble. They come out with a fixed amount and bet a little on each game. Whereas a Super Bowl gambler may bet hundreds of thousands, this crowd may bet as little as five to 10 to stretch out their money so that they can bet every game."

The recreational gambler has a better chance of beatings the odds for the tournament than he or she does on Super Sunday because, as Walker concedes, sports book operators don't know as much about some of the teams they are dealing with.

"When you are dealing with the NFL, there is information out there 24/7," he said. "There is so much analysis available that the average guy probably knows as much about the two teams involved as we do, if not more. Nothing is left to the imagination. But in this tournament, you take a team like Gonzaga, and how much does anybody outside their region really know about them, including us."

That's where the professional gamblers come in.

After Sunday's announcement of the tournament bracket, the sports books operators decided on their individual lines and opened wagering either Sunday night or this morning.

But they await the response of the professionals before settling on a line they feel comfortable with.

"We know that the professionals will quickly sort it out," Walker said. "Hopefully, by their actions, they will put us in line, hammer out the best line. We don't book some of these lesser-known teams at all during the season. We don't really know how good they are. That's why we need the professionals. What we want to do is to get to the right number as quickly as possible."

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