Las Vegas Sun

December 14, 2017

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Among Las Vegas bettors, college football is gaining on NFL

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Isaac Brekken / The New York Times

Bettors on Oct. 1, 2017, at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, where wagering on college football games is rising at the expense of betting on NFL games.

Jimmy Vaccaro has spent four decades as a bookmaker watching money move through an increasingly lucrative sports market. He is, by necessity, an astute observer of the human condition.

Jack Welch, the former head of General Electric, recommends to investors that they kick the tires of a business they are interested in. As such, if you are interested in sports betting, and many people are, there is no better place to start than with Vaccaro and the 24-hour sports book at the South Point.

Vaccaro speaks in the rat-a-tat of a sports ticker, and if he traded his golf shirt for a suit and tie he would be a natural for CNBC.

When he says that he is bullish on his profession, you believe him. With more than $5 billion expected to be bet in Las Vegas this year, according to state gaming officials, Nevada sports books are likely to post their eighth consecutive year of record handle.

“It has not gone backward,” he said. “It ain’t never going that way.”

And when Vaccaro says he is becoming bearish on the betting health of professional football, you lean in and listen. Last month, for three consecutive weeks, for the first time that he can remember, betting on college football at South Point surpassed betting on the NFL, by as much as $400,000.

College and professional football remain the No. 1 betting attraction for gamblers in Nevada, accounting for nearly 37 percent of dollars wagered, said Michael Lawton, an analyst for the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

The board does not break out college and professional numbers in any sport. Anecdotally, he said, “it’s been a 60-40 split,” in favor of the pros. “But the colleges are gaining,” he added.

It is no accident that the ascendance of college football at the betting windows has come as the NFL wobbles in public perception. There is greater attention to the sport’s concussion dangers, there is the continuing presidential uproar over national anthem protests, and there are the squabbles among team owners.

“Their product isn’t very good these days,” said Nick Bogdanovich, chief oddsmaker for William Hill, which operates 107 sports books in Nevada.

What Vaccaro and his colleagues recognize is that sports betting is a market just like the Dow and Nasdaq. It has fundamentals. It rewards value. It is often irrational (ask anyone who bet McGregor over Mayweather) and at the mercy of both momentum and unforeseen circumstances.

It is also something that should be taken seriously, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments next week on a New Jersey case that could expand sports wagering to states beyond Nevada — wagering that is now leaning away from the NFL.

“Some good players have gone down this season, and it has cost us, especially the loss of that pretty good quarterback in Green Bay,” Bogdanovich said, referring to Aaron Rodgers, who has been out with a broken collarbone since Week 6 of the NFL season.

At the Westgate SuperBook, there have been numerous weeks in recent seasons in which Jay Kornegay has watched his clerks write more tickets on NCAA games than those in the NFL. He notes that college football offers a bigger menu of games that can be bet on — often more than 50, spread out from Tuesday to Saturday — and that there has been a steep increase in the popularity of betting apps on cellphones, taking away any stigma attached to wagering.

“You no longer have to tell your wife you are going out for milk to get a bet down,” Kornegay said. “It’s right on the phone for you.”

John Avello, a bookmaker at the Wynn Las Vegas, says gamblers see better opportunity for more lucrative payouts in the college game. Like Vaccaro, he has set point spreads for professional football for decades. He trusts his gut, his experience and the spread he sets for the 16 or so weekly NFL games.

Understanding the hearts, minds and skills of the young men competing in the Toledo-Kent State game is a lot dicier.

“There’s more volatility and room for mistakes in the college game,” Avello said. “You can find an edge there, and that is what gamblers do. We are hard to beat when it comes to the NFL.”

Chris Lawless is a professional gambler who is wagering more on college games not only because there are flawed betting lines to take advantage of, but also because the games are more enjoyable. He cited last Friday’s contest between Central Florida and South Florida, a 49-42 shootout in which three touchdowns were scored in the final 53 seconds. Central Florida remained undefeated, at 11-0, but did not cover: It was giving 11 points.

“There are more momentum shifts and more exciting plays and more passion,” Lawless said.

No one here is ready to bury the NFL and devote full attention to the English Premier League. Not yet, anyway.

Still, when Vaccaro was at the iconic, but now closed, Barbary Coast and at the Mirage on the Strip, the split between professional and college football was pronounced. “Nearly $4 on the NFL for every buck on a college game,” he said. That is no longer the case.

As a fan, Vaccaro prefers the college game. “There’s more insanity, which is good for everyone,” he said. And as a bookmaker, he foresees the NFL continuing to cede ground.

Basketball now accounts for more than 31 percent of sports wagering in Nevada and baseball 23 percent, according to state figures. Soccer, too, is on the upswing as more games are being televised and streamed. Like college sports bettors, those betting on soccer are tribal in their devotion to their teams.

“It’s the recreational guys that are driving the growth,” Vaccaro said. “They want to put a few bucks on their team, watch and have a good time.”

No, the NFL is no longer the only game in town.