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I’ve been to Vegas plenty of times before, but never for the opening weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But when I got there on Friday, I could almost immediately tell that things were different on the Strip.
Yes, it was also St. Patrick’s Day, which escalated both the drinking and the volume (sound-wise and numbers) of people in town. But almost every sportsbook was absolutely overflowing with people yelling as they cheered on their point-spread, money-line and parlay wagers on Friday night and throughout the weekend.
Here’s what it looked like at the book at The Cosmopolitan, just as an example, where “standing-room only” would have been a generous assessment:
Definitely don't legalize sports betting, all you states not named Nevada. No one likes it. pic.twitter.com/IbDsT6ouUE
— Dustin Gouker (@DustinGouker) March 18, 2017
The gamblers on casino floors were equally engaged with the tournament nearly everywhere, with people often paying more attention to games than the bets they had on the tables.
Nevada, of course, is the only place you can legally bet on single games — of any sport — in the US because of a federal prohibition via PASPA.
We won’t know exactly how much money flowed in Nevada sports betting until late April, when state regulators release revenue figures for the state’s casinos.
But ESPN reported that there was record betting around the Strip. ESPN’s David Purdum reported that at least one book — South Point — eclipsed its Super Bowl handle on Thursday and Friday alone. William Hill said its figures were up 30 percent over 2016.
We also have an estimate from the American Gaming Association of $300 million being wagered legally in Nevada and more than $10 billion at illegal bookmakers.
Pretty much every casino around the country would love to be able to take bets during March Madness. (Or any NFL Sunday, busy NBA night, or slow MLB day, for that matter.) Sports betting gets people in the doors. Not only does it generate direct revenue for casinos, it also gets people hanging out, drinking, eating, and gambling elsewhere on the property. What’s not to like?
There are plenty of good reasons to legalize sports betting in the US. It would actually improve game integrity — not degrade it — and take money away from illegal and offshore books that are unregulated and offer little protection for gamblers’ money.
The most practical part of the equation: The US economy captures the revenue. People undoubtedly travel to Las Vegas just because of the spectacle of March Madness at the books, and so they can easily place wagers on any game they want to. They can’t do it anywhere else in the country (at least legally), with the exception of parlay wagering in Delaware.
As long as the federal prohibition exists, however, single-game betting is not an option in 49 states.
New Jersey is actively trying to push back in its sports betting case against the major pro sports leagues, and is hoping for a Supreme Court appeal. There are sports betting bills in a variety of other states, but it’s not clear the will to go the NJ route of a court challenge has real legs elsewhere. (West Virginia might be the best chance.)
Meanwhile, casinos in other states must watch and wait, hoping they can get a piece of the pie.