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May 21, 2019

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Final Four field puts Las Vegas sports books in danger

Prohibitive favorite Kentucky, spunky underdog Michigan State could pay off big for bettors

NCAA tournament

David Richard / AP

Kentucky players celebrate after a 68-66 win over Notre Dame in a college basketball game in the NCAA men’s tournament regional finals Saturday, March 28, 2015, in Cleveland.

Johnny Avello plans to watch the final three games of the NCAA Tournament without breaking much of a sweat.

The executive director of the Wynn Las Vegas sports book can live with any result. None of the teams in the Final Four took enough action to win the title throughout the season to significantly damage the Wynn’s bottom line.

“I’m a loser if Kentucky wins it all but it’s not that bad,” Avello said. “The rest are good.”

That position makes Avello the exception among bookmakers in town. Liability abounds for casinos across the valley going into Saturday’s national semifinal games in Indianapolis and, ultimately, the national championship Monday night.

Many sports books’ exposure comes courtesy of long shot Michigan State, a 5-point underdog to Duke in the first semifinal. The hottest story of the week is the $1 million Golden Nugget stands to lose to The D Las Vegas owner Derek Stevens if Michigan State wins its third title.

It’s far from the only property in a Spartan predicament. Competitors, including the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, printed tickets on Michigan State at 100-to-1 to win the tournament in December.

Bettors could take home decent returns elsewhere if Kentucky, a 5-point favorite over Wisconsin in Saturday’s primetime matchup, becomes the first team since Indiana in 1976 to finish the year undefeated. William Hill sports books offered a 50-to-1 price on the Wildcats finishing 40-0 at the beginning of the year, and booked a handful of wagers.

Duke would register a loss for CG Technology sports books while Wisconsin is worst-case scenario for Boyd Gaming, according to ESPN reports. It’s rare to get down to four teams in any sport that all threaten different local shops.

“Sometimes, you’re on the good end of the breaks and sometimes you’re on the bad end,” said William Hill Director of Trading Nick Bogdanovich. “You’ve just got to remember that it usually all balances out, and the business is in good shape in the long run. We can withstand the goofy aberrations.”

That doesn’t make them any easier to endure in the short term. Narrow Kentucky escapes against Ole Miss, Texas A&M, LSU and Notre Dame that would have absolved William Hill from its potential loss still haunt Bogdanovich.

Sports books’ power ratings labeled the Wildcats the best team in the country all season and one of college basketball’s all-time great squads, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been fortunate to win every game along the way.

“They’ve got nine McDonald’s All-Americans and it’s nauseating to me,” Bogdanovich huffed. “It’s like when the Yankees were spending $300 million and the Pirates were spending $5 million. I just don’t like it. So I’m always going to be rooting for the underdog anyway and if I didn’t have reason to root enough, I have more of a reason now.”

Gamblers bombarded Wynn with bets on Kentucky in the future book at 6-, 7- and 8-to-1 prices early in the season, which forced Avello to get creative. He posted a proposition wager in February asking bettors to take either Kentucky at Even money or the NCAA Tournament field at minus-120 (risking $1.20 to win $1) expecting to entice “sophisticated players” on the latter side.

Wynn has printed a surplus of tickets on the field, even currently when it’s offered at plus-110 (risking $1.10), ever since to erase some of the sting from Kentucky’s potential second championship in four years.

“I try to hedge when I’m in a little bit of jeopardy but there comes a point where you’ve got to be willing to take a risk and let the games play out,” Avello said.

Sports books could have forecasted the suspense with Kentucky a few weeks ago. Michigan State was more unexpected.

As a No. 7 seed, the Spartans were a 12-to-1 sixth choice just to come out of the NCAA Tournament’s East Region at the Superbook. They’re now 10-to-1 to win the title, which translates to approximately a 7 percent chance when adjusting for the house’s hold.

“That’s the one thing everyone can take solace in: They’re still the biggest dog in the field,” Bogdanovich said.

They’ve been a thorn in bookmakers’ proverbial side all tournament though. Bettors have created lopsided action on Michigan State in each of its four games so far, and the Spartans have covered on every occasion.

“A thorn, you might call them that,” Avello joked. “I’d call them a spear.”

It might not turn out to be Michigan State, but one team will pierce a sports book’s profit margin at the Final Four.

“We certainly don’t want to pay it out if Kentucky wins but if they do, we’ll chug along,” Bogdanovich said. “We’ll be OK by the end of the year.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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