It's the fiercest, most unpredictable 48 hours in sports anyway, but add five-game parlays, chicken wings and enough of the gas released by giant plasma screens and you have the single oddest holiday in America—March Madness. Yet not even that begins to describe the lunacy, at least in Las Vegas, when all the bros and dudes, the best buds—the guys—convene for an annual celebration of sports betting that, as it turns out, has very little to do with either sports or betting.
The overarching premise for this congregation—made up almost entirely of young males, enough product in their spiked hair to gel lesser nations—is the NCAA hoops tournament, the first full round of a 64-team roundelay, 32 games on Thursday and Friday. This ought to be exciting enough, the Belmonts mixing it up with the Arizonas, the Dukes with the Albanys, the sheer volume and relentlessness of games tipping off one after another, until all the giant screens are bright with competing basketball and beer ads (and stay that way for 12 hours at a time), certain to produce the bizarre and unexpected.
Here in Vegas, though, favored by this particular demographic for the opportunity to bet its teams and to bond without embarrassment over iced buckets of light beer, that excitement ratchets up to levels that ordinarily would require a toxicological screen. You can go to bigger events, larger spectacles and certainly watch more epic games than Miami-Pacific, and in more comfortable environments. By far. But for sheer scale of derangement, you must at least once visit Las Vegas the first week of March Madness and watch a lot of young men shout at one another over the relative merits of Bucknell and Butler.
First, how many visit? I don't know. Lots. Most properties on the Strip were sold out. On Thursday morning the taxi line at McCarran snaked around more terminals than I thought the airport had. A more useful metric might be how much they gamble. Again, I don't know. But it's also a lot. It's been reported that the handle for Nevada sportsbooks, the total amount bet on the tournament, is roughly $100 million, about the same amount wagered on the Super Bowl. And a sportsbook director told me that most of that would be bet on this Thursday and Friday, not during the Final Four. This front-loaded action is not so odd when you think about it. There are more games incorporating many more loyalties, more ways to bet parlays and so much initial enthusiasm that the money just flies to the windows. Also, after those first two days, there is considerably less money to gamble with.
The ability to wager is a powerful attraction for these pilgrims, who are eager to appear grown-up and keen to profit from their purportedly informed opinions. The sportsbooks love having them because, as it turns out, their opinions are formed almost entirely by ESPN or else just based on collegiate allegiances. I asked one young gentleman in a PITT T-shirt if he was betting the tournament. This was at the Mirage, where the new 85-foot screen above us was putting out enough heat to warm, well, Pittsburgh. "I like the Panthers against Wichita State, the grind-it-out defense we have," he said. He added that he'd bet $400 on such conviction. But what did he know about Wichita State? "Well," he said, taking a pull of Coors Light (this was at 9:30 a.m.), "that's the catch."
This is the easiest money the casinos make all year. (Pitt's highly vaunted defense gave up 73 in an 18-point loss.) The silver-maned Jimmy Vaccaro—not a wise guy, could play one—has been making book in Las Vegas for 38 years and always looks forward to March Madness, once a sleepy little enterprise but now a tremendous growth vehicle for his property's sports gaming. The hold on all sports, the amount the books keep as profit, has actually been shrinking year by year as gamblers become more sophisticated. They are not beating the house—that's impossible as the casino retains a 4.5% vigorish (that is, you must bet $11 to win $10)—but they are coming closer.
Except during March Madness, when the "public" wildly outnumbers the "sharps." Even Super Bowl bettors, who still are more recreational than occupational, bring some sophistication to the window (along with much bigger bets). "But when I look out there and see a kid in a corn-cob hat," said Vaccaro, "I think I know how he's betting." There is no price, no line Vaccaro can set that will alter the corn-cob man's allegiance. There is nothing Dick Vitale can whisper that will sway him. He will bet his heart, his hunch, and that's that.
That mostly blind devotion, coupled with the risk-flattening volume of the tournament (an increase in transactions favors the house), means the books win big. Vaccaro said the hold for the William Hill books, which he now represents, jumps from a normal 6.5%-to-8% range to 10% to 12% during March Madness. That, my friend, is what you call corn-cob-hat betting.
Still, this is sports, and there are risks. I sat with Jay Rood, who hangs the number for all MGM properties. (No one actually hangs numbers or even writes tickets, but old-timey lingo is carefully preserved in the gambling industry.) Rood was sweating out the early Thursday action after the Michigan State game ended right on the line. (A meaningless dunk by an unthinking Valparaiso player ruined every casino's position.) "The public can crush you," he said, "all those 20-to-1 parlays and no way to fade the action." (Good for you, public!) He was surveying a number of computer screens in his behind-the-counter bunker and even flicking to his "what if" program, which was expressing the MGM's festering liability on open parlay cards. Could be bad. If this liability grew—five-game parlays continuing to mount—he might have to tinker with other games, halftime spreads, whatever. "I'm just a hedge-fund manager, trying to squeak out a percent or two for my company," he added. But he was clearly, and refreshingly, sweating out that percent or two.
(In the middle of all this, the hedge-fund manager took a call from another of his properties where a woman wanted to bet whatever he'd take on the Reds, 10-to-1, to win the World Series. "Marge Schott?" he asked. He took 10 grand.)
Parlays have become increasingly popular as bettors, in Vaccaro's words, want to "turn toothpicks into lumber piles," and they appeal mightily to the "bro" crowd, who see no reason why they can't compound their certainty. And this is where the Harvard miracle comes into our story. Parlays can be very exciting for the bettor but extremely damaging to the sportsbooks. In November, a number of NFL favorites covered (bettors overwhelmingly make parlay cards of favorites) and cost William Hill $2 million in one day. It never happens, except when it does.
Similarly, New Mexico, which was an 11½-point favorite in its Thursday-night game with 14th-seeded Harvard, was looming as a casino calamity. Vaccaro was horrified to notice that the Lobos, who had become a tournament darling, were linked to almost 70% of the tickets William Hill had written that day. Suddenly $10 investments in five-game parlays were set to go off at $250. I talked to a spokesman for a 16-man syndicate—well, a bunch of guys—at Terrible's, a gritty off-Strip alternative to the glitzier books. They had each arrived that morning with their top two picks, sifted through them and produced a five-game parlay that, leveraging their combined wisdom to a powerful advantage, would produce a $4,000 payout if New Mexico covered. And then four games into certain success, Harvard, a feel-good story anywhere outside these state lines, not only beat the spread but also beat New Mexico (really, who cares about that?) and crumpled thousands of tickets.
Vaccaro chuckled. Consulting his "what if" screen, he was happy to see that his books just went from a horrible 4% hold that first day to a 12% hold. Miracle indeed. "Things happen," he said, "but I kind of like my spot."
And yet for all the ways in which gambling can twist a fan's perspective—I saw UNLV boosters rooting against a possible three-point buzzer beater Thursday night, hoping instead for a tying two and a chance to regroup and cover: "Overtime! Overtime!" they chanted, but got neither—it seemed to me that betting was almost incidental to these two days. Everywhere I went I ran into groups of best friends, guys gathering anew, refreshing all those vows of young brotherhood. A surprising number of them were dressed in identical T-shirts, like bridesmaids. I saw a bunch of South Dakota State faithful in FEAR THE JACKRABBIT GARB (no need as it turned out), another group in 12TH ANNUAL MARCH MADNESS T's and the JOEY'S 30TH BIRTHDAY PARTY celebrants in Caesars Palace's so-called man-caves, where for $3,000 they got all-you-can-eat wings and unlimited Bud Lite along with four screens of their own (and, at 1 p.m., the chance to meet MMA great Ken Shamrock).
Lagasse's Stadium is a sports bar/book at the Palazzo, geared strictly toward this demographic, where for as little as $300 or as much as $10,000 you can enjoy every young male's fantasy of assisted-care living. There were huge monitors, of course, betting windows at the pit of stadium seating and all the bacon-wrapped shrimp and light beer you could consume. Every need was met, except that for which a catheter might be provided. I met two 36-year-olds, friends since kindergarten, frat brothers, best men at each other's weddings, who made March Madness the annual pretense for renewal of their fellowship. This was their fifth year and they promised many more, hoping to get together again with the bunch in the front row. They were fans of one team or another. I forget.
I also saw—and this was equivalent to spotting the ivory billed woodpecker in a Detroit parking lot—two young women there. In my two days, these were the only females I'd happened upon who weren't carrying trays of beer. One was a genuine Kansas fan, in all her Rock! Chalk! regalia. The other seemed along for the ride, but giddy at the odds this male gathering seemed to promise.
I hesitated to tell her the truth. In fact these young men, as a gender, had all been neutered by the powerful streams of plasma, nachos, alcohol and male bonding. So much male bonding. I watched over the course of a day, at sportsbooks up and down the Strip, as these guys practiced the rites of friendship, the morning's bottle clinking turning into afternoon fist bumps. Then, as the late games ran on, the lads doubled down on poor decisions and broke into confessionals, sharing their dreams and fears over the iced buckets of beer, collapsing in hugs, some even weepy.
These men were no good to our ivory billed woodpecker, not here.
Of course, March Madness is, to some extent at least, about basketball, bro-maraderie aside. Even here. The gambling is not 100% incidental. Las Vegas would not exist if it were. On Friday, I wandered back to Terrible's to see how my syndicate was regrouping. The big game that morning was Duke and Albany. Everybody loves Duke and there was no price that could move any money toward Albany. No doubt Duke led everybody's parlay card that day, too. The line started at 17 and got pushed all the way to 19, worse than a bad number, a ridiculous number, the sharps probably pouncing on Albany, scorching the public. I watched as Duke, in what seemed the most annoying and least satisfying victory ever, beat Albany by just 12, well inside the spread.
I caught the attention of my syndicate spokesman and asked if they happened to have had Duke. This spring break for the young professionals, all the dudes basking in the glow of giant monitors, extreme levels of bonhomie aside, had the occasional downside. He stared lasers at me and took a long pull from his Coors Light. It was 11 a.m.
"WHEN I LOOK OUT THERE AND SEE A KID IN A CORN-COB HAT," SAYS ONE BOOKMAKER, "I THINK I KNOW HOW HE'S BETTING."
I ALSO SAW—AND THIS WAS EQUIVALENT TO SPOTTING THE IVORY BILLED WOODPECKER IN A DETROIT PARKING LOT—TWO YOUNG WOMEN.
Photographs by CHRIS FARINA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SCREEN AND ROLL Like most sportsbooks on the Strip, the MGM Grand's wall-to-wall viewing lounge was sold out with young men following their bets as well as their teams.
Photographs by CHRIS FARINA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH Fans from all over the country come to get in on the action, bringing their allegiances, long-time buds and T-shirt design skills to viewings that range from $50 a man to as much as $10,000.
Photograph by CHRIS FARINA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
PARLAY VOUS? March Madness brings in around $100 million in wagers, about the same as the Super Bowl, with the long-odds five-game contingency bets growing in popularity.