New contributors share their March Madness experience in Vegas. A nice long read!
The American Gaming Association estimates that roughly $295 million was legally bet on the NCAA Basketball Championship tournament (more commonly known as March Madness) this year in Las Vegas. Compare that to the $138.5 million bet on the Super Bowl back in February and you’ll understand why Derek Stevens, owner of the D hotel and casino, says, “Las Vegas is now the home for March Madness for the whole country.” To get a true sense of the enormity of this event, I want to give you, the reader, my up-close, first-hand experience of March Madness in Las Vegas 2017. However, if you’re a complete newbie to the March Madness in Las Vegas phenomenon and/or want to find out more information, I recommend there are a few things you should do before you start reading my March Madness Memoir. First and foremost, join and visit the March Madness in Las Vegas Facebook group. Here, founder Barry Inciong and a dedicated group of moderators lead a community of over 9,200 members comprised of many March Madness veterans who offer a year-round treasure chest of information regarding watch party details, hotel/flight rates, and anything you could ever wish to know about the first weekend of March Madness. A word to the wise though, before posting a question in the group, please use the search function to ensure your question has not already been answered (you have been warned!).
I also recommend everyone read the articles on March Madness by Vegas Bright’s very own Kelly Lamrock and Gennadius; both give great overviews of the March Madness experience and touch on many themes you will find in the memoir. Finally, I’ll be mentioning many sports betting terms and lingo (Purdue -9); so if you have never even thought about placing a bet on sports and/or you would like to learn more about the whole process, read Gennadius’ Introduction to the Sportsbook. This memoir will be broken down into four different blog posts and they won’t be short as the whole series is meant to give you a (mostly) unfiltered look into this crazy roller coaster ride known as March Madness in Vegas. Finally, while my wife Wendy and I will both make contributions to these posts, the memoir will be in my (Josh’s) voice due to being the sports addict in the family. Enjoy and feel free to leave comments.
Day 1: Thursday, March 16, 2017
The Calm Before the Storm
It’s 6:00 am and I’m awoken by a loud, harmonious sound a few feet away which can only mean one of two things; my phone alarm is going off on the nightstand or I’m about to enter the pearly gates to meet St. Peter. Thankfully, the answer is somewhere in the middle with today being the start of experiencing March Madness in Las Vegas and is a pseudo-Christmas morning to this middle-class Midwesterner. The next four days would be filled with stacks of sports betting tickets, many tips slid to friendly bartenders, and the perfect combination of agony and ecstasy that would give even the most veteran of cardiologists cause for concern. Morning routine completed, my lovely wife hands me a cup of coffee (thanks, honey) as I go to investigate the scene in the Harrahs’ sportsbook. I’ve made the majority of my bets the day before as the line on both Thursday and Friday morning can become daunting; however, I’m surprised to find the line very manageable at 6:45 am. My reason for braving the line is twofold; I’d like to put a bet on a 6 team parlay of all underdogs (it wouldn’t hit) and really just soak in the atmosphere of the book on this glorious morning. I am delighted to pass the twenty minutes in line chatting away with a very friendly Wisconsin fan about how the Big Ten was underrated (he was right) and the outlook for our school’s football programs (Go Buckeyes!) this coming Fall. We both reach the front of the line, bid each other good luck and adieu, and make our bets (donations) with the ticket writer.
My decision to wake up early was already paying dividends as upon exiting the sportsbook I notice the line has already mutated to the point that it threatens to engulf almost the entire bank of quarter slot machines. Tickets in hand, I venture out the front entrance of Harrahs onto the Strip. The difference in the atmospheres inside and outside of Harrahs could not be more different; aside from the typical health-obsessed morning runners (exercise on vacation, no thanks!), the Strip exudes a quiet calm which will be absent from the sportsbook until Monday morning. I cross the street to find a longer line at the Mirage Sportsbook stretched all the way back to Carnegie Deli. Thankful again all of my bets were already placed, I exit Mirage and notice a man wearing a blue and orange Florida shirt passing by; I had bet against Florida (E. Tennessee St +10.5) and needed to reaffirm my decision.
“Are your boys going to cover today?” I shouted towards him as he walks past.
He stops and proclaims joyfully “We definitely will today, after that, I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“Well, my bank account hopes you’re wrong but good luck!”
We both share a laugh as he heads inside the Mirage to join the evolving line, while I head up to my room at Harrah’s to collect my wife and head to our destination for the day: Hard Rock Café.
Arriving at the Venue
We arrive at Hard Rock Café on The Strip for the Hoops Madness party. It is a standalone restaurant just across the street from Monte Carlo. We had actually never been in there, but it is quite the place. It takes up 3 floors. The bottom floor has a merchandise store. Floor 2 was open as the restaurant for the day. Floor 3 became Hoops Madness central. It appears to be a space they typically use for musical performances along with special event rooms.
The price for the event was $175 inclusive of taxes and gratuity. This covered food, drinks (several beer options, call liquor options, house wine, soft drinks, coffee, and tea) and a guaranteed seat from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. that day. They did also offer a package you could buy to cover 3 days (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) for $420.
The hostess offers us a warm and friendly greeting and walks us to our table; we pass a large main bar on our way to a round table with 8 chairs. Our seats were not on the main floor area. They were towards the far right side of the venue, which would prove tricky for some game viewing. We are greeted by our four tablemates; Evan, Isaac, Cameron, and Mike. Evan and Isaac were late-twenties, fellow Buckeyes (O-H) from Southeastern Ohio who spoke with a distinct West Virginia/Pittsburgh accent. Cameron and Mike were childhood friends from South Carolina whom now lived in Houston and the D.C. area respectively; both had a loose-leaf notebook with their various bets circled for the day. Immediately, we all discussed the day’s wagers and how we would cheer each other on when possible and be respectful opponents when not. At that moment, it was also agreed upon we would all find a game later that afternoon to all be on the same side; I immediately knew that these were good guys and we were going to have a great day! (Spoiler Alert: I was right!) At this point, our server Chris came over to introduce himself and take our first round of drink orders; a screwdriver for Wendy and me so we could feel a little bit less like degenerates drinking at 9:00 am.
When you have already purchased a twelve-hour open bar package and wish to make the most of this opportunity, and frankly not die of alcohol poisoning, you need to eat a decent amount of food throughout the day. With this is mind; Wendy and I found the line for breakfast. Breakfast consisted of breakfast burritos that you could fill with eggs, bacon, potatoes, cheese and salsa. They also had out fruit and veggies with hummus. The breakfast line had formed right near the televisions at the bar which was fortuitous as the first game of the day (Notre Dame vs. Princeton) was about to tip off. It was also fortuitous that one of the managers from the bar walked by Wendy and I proclaiming “You two look like you could use a drink.” She was not wrong, however, even me and my minuscule patience level could wait for the five to ten minutes until I secured my burrito and returned to my seat. “Thanks, but we already ordered drinks at our table,” I replied, still very thankful she had even asked. However, it was her next reply that made me realize immediately Hard Rock Café was not going to skimp on the alcohol today;
“You’re not only going to have one drink all day are you?!”
“We’ll have two screwdrivers, please.”
“That’s the spirit! Coming right up.”
Two years ago we had booked a similar March Madness watch party at The Pub at Monte Carlo where they advertised an open bar all day as included in your price. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the venue there was a drink list on the table and the fine print on the bottom read “All Day Drink Package 8:00am-2:30 pm only!” Not only had we been bait-and-switched, but the bartenders and servers were so overwhelmed that service was slow, to say the least. Anyways, you can imagine how happy we were to discover the drinks would be flowing for the full 12 hours today.
The Television Roulette
Upon my return to me seat with my breakfast burrito, I found that Princeton and Notre Dame were playing a fast-paced, high-scoring first ten minutes of the game. This wouldn’t have been an issue except I had bet the under for the 1st half which easily went over and my bet was lost. Undeterred by the loss, I searched for the next bet I had made; UNC-Wilmington (+7.5) vs Virginia. I realized this game had already started (and UNC-Wilmington had built a lead!) and looked for it on the three main televisions on the stage. Unfortunately, all three were showing the last few seconds of the first half of the ND game. Since Hard Rock Cafe is a standalone restaurant and not connected to any casino, the only way to place wagers that Thursday was through the William Hill mobile betting app. I still had to sign up for the app with the William Hill representatives and, assuming they would have the television issue fixed upon my return, got in line at the front of the restaurant. The line was approximately ten people deep and took a good twenty minutes. The William Hill representatives were friendly and answered all of our questions in getting us setup on the app.
Walking from the front of the restaurant back to our table, an uneasy tension seemed to befall the entire restaurant. We soon, unfortunately, discovered the television situation had not been ratified and the natives were getting restless. The Virginia vs. UNC-Wilmington game was nowhere to be found on any of the three main televisions in front of the room and to our dismay was only on a television out of view from our table. The staff proclaimed they had no control over the televisions and were working to fix the problem (the issue for this game was soon fixed, but there were technical issues a few more times throughout the day). Thankfully, UNC-Wilmington only lost by five points and was able to cover the 7.5 point spread giving us our first betting win of the day. The positive momentum appeared to be rolling along as Bucknell (+14) only lost to West Virginia by six points while simultaneously, it initially appeared my Florida friend outside Mirage was mistaken as East Tennessee St. (+10.5) was battling and only trailed by 1 at halftime. Overall, our table was having mixed results on the gambling front; Cameron, Mike, and the Brickner family were doing okay, but Evan and Isaac felt like they were under Vegas’ thumb for the morning. It was obvious what we all needed to do; find an upcoming game to all place a bet on so we could unite as a table against Vegas.
A Table United against Vegas
A discussion ensued and it was soon realized that beating Vegas required more advanced thinking than our open-bar impaired minds could muster; however, we soon found an opponent we might be able to beat, the general betting public. Mike had done some research online and found that an overwhelming percent of the betting public favored Middle Tennessee State (-1.5) over Minnesota; in fact, when the betting lines were first released on Selection Sunday, Minnesota was actually favored in the matchup until massive amounts of bets coming in for Middle Tennessee State had completely flipped the line. Our thinking was that the general public was overvaluing Middle Tennessee St. due to their impressive upset victory over Michigan St. last season and we should take advantage. The entire table was immediately on board with the exception of Cameron. He had Middle Tennessee State circled (twice!) on his notepad of the day’s matchups indicating his research told him this was the smart pick. Thanks to peer pressure, along with his good buddy Mike questioning the validity of his research, Cameron caved into the peer pressure and we all used the William Hill app to put various sums of our hard-earned money on Minnesota +1.5; I even convinced two guys at the table beside us to join our united front.
The game began and right from the start, it appeared Cameron was indeed right; Middle Tennessee St. looked to be in control of the game and led by six points at halftime (it truly didn’t even feel that close). To make matters worse, it appeared the Nostradamus from Florida would be proven correct as the Gators had a 16 point lead with only a few minutes left. East Tennessee St. attempted to make a run at the end of the game but Florida’s clutch free throw shooting carried them to a 14 point win and made the bet a loser (to add insult to injury, two crucial free throws in the final 30 seconds were made by a player who shot them granny-style).
The second half of the Minnesota game started worse than the first half ended; Middle Tennessee looked to be having their way and led by what seemed like an insurmountable 17 points. The mood at the table was not a happy one; I couldn’t even look in the direction of the two gentlemen at our neighboring table who I had convinced to join us on this ill-conceived venture. Frustrated and dejected, I go to the only place where a man can be alone with his thoughts… a quick tip and friendly greeting to the attendant and I emerge several minutes later. Much to my delight, Minnesota was making a spirited comeback and had cut the deficit to six. High fives and fist bumps erupted as we all felt like a comeback was on the horizon. Unfortunately, Middle Tennessee St. had other ideas and made a run to put the game, and our bet, away for good. Cameron vowed to always trust his instincts over peer pressure (always a good lesson, kids) when it came to betting and the rest of us just lamented the loss.
Losing to Vegas Three Times on One Game
A few minutes later a tall, lanky, brown-haired gentleman in his early thirties looking rather dejected walked by our table carrying a pitcher of beer and a stack of cups. This would not have been anything out of the ordinary as we were right beside the beer pong tables, however, as he turned around we saw his gray shirt had MINNESOTA written in team colors.
“What happened?! Your Gophers killed our entire table,” Cameron asked in a friendly, yet still inquisitive tone.
“I have no explanation for that sh*t!” He immediately shot back in the same tone. “I triple-dipped on those a-holes so now I’m going to get really drunk and drown my sorrows.” Apparently, this guy had not only put bets on Minnesota to cover the spread and win the game outright (money line), but he made a live bet on the William Hill app (a very dangerous feature of the app one should avoid) during Minnesota’s comeback attempt. We apologized for his unfortunate luck and wished him well as his friend decked in Gopher gear soon met him at the beer pong table to help accomplish his goal.
The MVP of the Day & A Longshot Bet among Friends
Our losing bet aside, we could not have been enjoying the atmosphere at our table any more. We cheered and yelled at the television screen in unison when a few of us were on the same side of a bet and kept the gloating to a minimum the other times when we were not. We quoted 90s movies when it was appropriate (“So you’re telling me there’s a chance?!”) and generally just enjoyed each other’s company sharing stories of sports, work, and life. It bears mentioning that this festive table atmosphere would not have been possible without the true MVP of the day, our server Chris. From the moment we arrived that morning Chris was checking on our table every 10-15 minutes and made sure our cups were never empty. This speaks to Chris’ impressive work ethic as 18% gratuity was paid upfront when booking the party, but do not fret, Chris’ hustle did not go unrecognized as every member of the table tossed him an extra $20. He deserved it!
The Xavier vs. Maryland game was a mere ten minutes away from tipping off and Cameron, for some unknown reason, kept reminding Mike of this fact. I let them know I had just put a bet on Xavier and asked which side they had chosen. It’s at this point that they inform all of us at the table about an eight team parlay they had placed with their five other friends who were in Vegas with them. Each of them had put up around $20 for a total bet of $160; each man picked their best bet of Thursday or Friday (they had bet on Dayton +6 for sentimental reasons). If all eight legs of their parlay hit, they would take home over $28,000 as a group which is not bad for a mere $20 investment per person. The odds of hitting this bet were astronomically against them; however, they were still optimistic as the first two bets of the day had hit and now the pressure was on Mike as Xavier (+1.5) was the bet he had chosen. Mike felt confident, he was a Maryland season ticket holder and knew they were very overrated by the selection committee; still, he did not want the shame of having his bet ruin their chance at a huge financial windfall. Thankfully for Mike, Xavier ended up winning the game outright by 11; their parlay and my individual bet for much less were safe. The fourth leg of their parlay (Florida Gulf Coast +12) came up aces for all of us later that evening and they were halfway to $28,000 with the other four bets coming on Friday.
Only in Vegas March Madness Moment
As the day became night I couldn’t help but be disappointed in one thing that had been missing from the day; an Only in Vegas March Madness moment. Let me explain; at the end of a close, exciting game in any bar or living room fans will hang on every shot and possession with a stunning combination of joy and despair depending on the outcome of their desired team. In Vegas, a game has to be neither exciting nor close for fans to hang on every shot at the end of the game due to the betting lines and over/unders. Earlier in the day, Northwestern (-1.5) had barely covered the spread against Vanderbilt, but this game had an exciting finish without the betting lines involved. A true Only in Vegas March Madness moment takes a game where the winner of the game is already decided, but a missed foul shot or garbage time made shot can swing thousands, even millions, of dollars. Then, as fate would have it, around 7:00 pm Pacific Time I was granted my wish in the Purdue vs. Vermont contest.
The spread was 9 points in favor of Purdue who had the lead for most of the 2nd half, but the lead seemed to yo-yo between four and twelve points the last ten minutes. The last two minutes were very intense as the majority of the restaurant, as well as our table, seemed to have a betting interest in the game. In the last ten seconds, Purdue is up eight with the ball and the restaurant is evenly divided between people pleading for “DEFENSE!” or a “SCORE!” at the top of their lungs. The Purdue player puts up a jump shot and… it’s good. The restaurant erupts in a stunning combination of cheers and groans. All hope is not lost for the Vermont bettors, however, as Vermont’s sub-six-foot point guard races down the floor as the final five seconds tick away… he passes up an open three-pointer…drives to the rim… where he is met by Purdue’s 7-foot Center who goes straight up and swats his shot away with emphasis. The restaurant explodes in simultaneous thunderous applause and stinging expletives. I had gotten my wish; unfortunately, I had bet on Vermont (cue Price is Right loser music).
“You’re Good, Bro”
A great opening day of March Madness was winding down and many were feeling the effects in the 11th hour of a 12-hour open bar. The Minnesota fan from earlier, who had gotten triple-kicked in the groin by Vegas, was definitely getting his money’s worth of Bud Light at the beer pong table; he and his friend were leaning up against one another for balance at one point. Each of the numerous times he walked by our table with a new pitcher of Bud Light he would jokingly hide his face and we would razz him back in a similarly friendly tone. The Minnesota guys were obviously drunk; however, they were extremely friendly, polite, and did not ruin the experience of any other patron at Hard Rock Cafe. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the gentlemen we would soon encounter.
The entire restaurant, and especially our table, seemed to be fixated on the Wisconsin (-5.5) and Virginia Tech contest. I had bet on Virginia Tech with the spread, Evan had Wisconsin with the spread, while Cameron and Mike had both put a decent sum of money on the Wisconsin money line; suffice it to say, our table was glued to the television showing the game. There were about ten minutes left in the game when two guys playing cornhole, unlike the dozens of other people who have played all day, had to rearrange the board in a way where they were blocking half of our table’s view of the game. These gentlemen could barely stand so several loud coughs and dirty looks did not do the trick and finally Cameron spoke up and called them over.
Over stumbled two mid to late twenties guys; one was average height, with brownish hair, a beginner’s beard, and wearing a red Wisconsin sweatshirt; however, it was his friend who made an impression. This guy was over 6 foot tall, brownish-blonde hair, wearing designer jeans and a sweatshirt, and was straight out of central casting as a teen movie villain. Seriously, I was expecting to see this guy throw George McFly or the Karate Kid up against their high school locker with one arm. Cameron calmly explained to the two friends that they were blocking our view of the game in which we all had betting interests. “Who do you got in the game?” Biff Tannen drunkenly inquiries to the table. Cameron was the first to answer, “I have a decent amount of money on the Wisconsin Moneyline.” Before anyone else at the table could answer, Biff confidently retorts back to Cameron “You’re good, bro; you’ve got this one in the bag.” It was at that moment this guy went from hypothetical to actual villain; you see, a cardinal rule of betting on sports is that a bet is never safe until the clock reads all zeroes. Most sports bettors can tell you with great accuracy a bizarre play at the end of a game which cost them a betting win. Stan Gable had not only violated this important rule, but he showed his true ignorance by making the comment during a time in the game when Wisconsin was only ahead by about 3 points with over six minutes left, which is an eternity in college basketball. The half-puzzled, half-annoyed looks on all of our faces must have told the friends we were not enjoying this conversation as they left the bar. We all had a quick laugh on their behalfs and hoped this was our last interaction with these two scholars, sadly, that was not to be.
For the only time in the day, I was angry with the speed of the bartending staff at Hard Rock Cafe as the two returned within a couple minutes; and in true obnoxious drunk fashion, they resumed their cornhole match right in our view of the television. Cameron yelled over to them and they quickly moved and apologized, Johnny Lawrence loudly proclaiming we were his “Favorite table in the entire restaurant.” As you can probably guess, this process repeated itself several times over the next ten minutes as these guys either were so inebriated they had no clue what was happening, such selfish jerks they did not care, or a stunning combination of both. The last time we asked them to move, Biff once again reaffirmed we were his favorite people in the entire restaurant and walked away for good. The feeling was obviously not mutual as Cameron erupted “I really hate those guys!” The table burst out laughing and watched as Wisconsin won an 11 point victory (maybe Biff Tannen had consulted his special sports almanac when he made his bold call). The run-in with the star pupil of the Cobra Kai Dojo and his sidekick really made our whole table realize something very startling; these guys could have easily been seated with us all day and would have certainly ruined the great vibe at our table.
(Quote from Cameron after reading an advanced copy of this post: “I still hate that guy!”)
Day 1 in the Books
At 9:00 pm our table exchanged contact information and wished Cameron and Mike luck on the rest of their parlay before heading to the exits. A monorail ride from MGM Grand to Harrahs (courtesy of MyVegas) gave me time to truly appreciate how much fun we had that day and take a tally of my bets for the day. Much to my surprise, I was ahead for the day and would proudly be taking some of Vegas’ money. As I went to sleep I could only hope that day 2 of March Madness on Friday (St. Patrick’s Day) would be as much fun and the wave of good luck would continue; sadly, only one of these things would happen…
[Photos: Josh Brickner]