Friday, March 16, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The saying was repeated all day: The next best thing to being at the NCAA Tournament is being in Las Vegas for the tournament.
Being here, actually, could be slightly better.
Our over-the-top parties have cheap eats, easy access to betting stations and games displayed on state-of-the-art television screens. It is a big reason why nearly 4 million visited last March.
Thursday, I got a taste of the madness, Las Vegas style. I visited six properties and met some pretty awesome people along the way.
Here are some of the stories:
At 4:45 a.m. Thursday morning, Patsy Sullivan arrived at the Westgate Las Vegas to reserve her family’s six seats in the front row of the sports book. Watching the tournament at the property is an annual tradition for the Washington state residents.
She wasn’t alone.
To get a prime spot at the popular local book, you have to arrive early to beat the masses. You have to know the unwritten rule: If you need to leave to use the bathroom, prop up the seat or leave a piece of paper with “reserved” written on it.
A line of would-be bettors was already in place when Sullivan arrived. When the Oklahoma-Rhode Island game tipped off at 9 a.m. to officially start the 13-hour day, the line of bettors was more than 150 deep.
Jeff Sullivan Jr., her son, didn’t have to wait. He’s got the Westgate’s mobile app and spent the day wagering from his phone.
“When we first starting coming here, security guards would rush over if someone took out a cellphone,” Jeff Jr. jokingly said, referring to a time when phone usage in books was against state law.
The Sullivan family, each dressed in Gonzaga gear, and each on the edge of their seats for the Zags' narrow win on Thursday, never think twice about where they watch the initial days of the tournament. The three generations of Sullivans wait all year for the trip to the Westgate.
“This is the best place to watch the tournament, without a doubt,” Jeff Jr. said.
Laura Piper has been coming from Chicago to the Orleans to watch the tournament for more than 10 years. When see walks into Mardi Gras Ballroom, she’s recognized by staff who call her by name. She’s recognized by other visitors, who she’s befriended while watching the tournament together each March.
This year, though, Piper was going to have to stay home. She opened a third restaurant — The Lunchroom — a few days ago and couldn’t fathom being away.
Then, Loyola-Chicago made the tournament.
Piper lives minutes away from the university and has become a fan of the program that hadn’t won a tourney game since 1985. She had to come to Las Vegas.
“No way I miss this,” she said.
Loyola-Chicago did the rest. Donte Ingram’s 3-pointer as time expired gave No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago the upset victory against Miami, sending Piper and her friends into celebration. She hugged her cousin and wife in a moment of pure joy. You couldn’t have asked for a better ending or setting.
Their group was the only one wearing Loyola-Chicago gear, and many other patrons came over to congratulate them. That included staff at the Orleans.
• • •
As the Rhode Island-Oklahoma game went back-and-forth in the final minute, the anticipation grew at Hoops & Hops inside the 40,000-square-foot Belmont Ballroom at the Cosmopolitan.
A majority of the crowd clearly had wagers on Rhode Island at minus-1.5. So, when a shot by Rhode Island rimmed out at the regulation buzzer to force overtime, many of the sold-out crowd of more than 2,000 were vocal in their disappointment of nearly having a winning ticket.
Mid-interview the Cosmo’s Fedor Banuchi, its vice president of entertainment and one of the masterminds behind the mega-event, summarized the day perfectly: “You don’t get that in a man cave,” he said.
Las Vegas properties have evolved in the past decade via viewing parties, and the Cosmo has been one of the leaders. Yes, it’s still a basketball watching marathon, but now many provide more than just the game.
The Cosmo has a free-throw shooting competition and complimentary bar games such as Golden Tee. The ballroom is lined with state-of-the-art projection and high-definition television screens, and there’s an option to purchase an unlimited buffet.
“We are always trying to do new things,” Banuchi says.
Three months after Cosmo opened, it hosted its first tournament viewing party in March 2011. It wasn’t as elaborate and just 50 people attended, paying $40 — which included two drinks.
Now it’s grown to a $225 entry and more than 6,000 attendees over three days.
“We really believed in this,“ Banuchi said.
• • •
Ken Welk is a savvy veteran when it comes to NCAA Tournament viewing. He’s been coming to Nevada (initially Reno before wising up) to watch and bet on the tournament since the 1980s and has clearly learned a few tricks along the way.
In the middle of Welk’s table at the South Point sat a bag with grocery-store fruit for the day, because while Welk and his buddies planned to load up on cheap stadium-style food and beer, they know its not sustainable for 13 hours straight on back-to-back days.
Welk, from Washington state, arrived nearly two hours before games on Thursday to reserve his table. South Point is a locals favorite and many others rushed into the ballrooms when doors opened to do the same.
“Every year, there’s just more and more people,” said Welk, whose setup also included a laptop and betting literature. “Can’t blame anyone. This is a week to have fun.”
In the other ballroom at South Point, someone on their way to place a wager confidently yelled, “Everything I bet turns to gold.”
Someone asked who he was beating. He replied, “Oregon.”
It’s too bad Oregon, who made the Final Four last year, missed the tournament.
• • •
Joseph Nixon did most of the planning for his group to travel from Columbus, Ohio, to Las Vegas to watch the tournament. Never in the planning, though, was a game of Monopoly part of the schedule before rooting on Ohio State in its round-of-64 win.
But Nixon and pals Chris Shumaker and Tyler Borland made their way from the New York-New York sports book to Beerhaus at The Park to find a great addition to the viewing party landscape — board games.
Patrons play games such as Uno, Jenga and Yahtzee, momentarily taking their mind off watching their alma mater or cheering on a parlay bet. The group started at the bar and quickly shifted to one of the side tables with games.
It added to the experience, they said.
“It’s a pretty good deal and better than sitting at the bar,” Borland said.
• • •
Bartender Tony Deppe has manned his station at the Green Valley Ranch Resort sports book since the property opened in 2001. He proudly knows many regulars by name.
The initial Thursday of the NCAA Tournament is one of his most favorite days of the year to work. You see, when you are as social as Deppe, the spike in customers is a good thing. He seems engaged in three conversations at once, all while keeping a close eye on the televisions with the games.
“Good laughs,” Deppe said. “We are having a lot of fun.”
On a normal Thursday, Deppe and server Nicole Ervolino handle all of the daytime business in the book. But this is no ordinary Thursday across town. Green Valley Ranch Resort called in multiple servers and bartenders to handle the many patrons jockeying to place drink orders. It’s three or four times busier than a normal Thursday, they say.
“It’s Super Bowl Sunday and New Year’s Eve combined into one,” Ervolino said.
When the financial impact of the tournament in Las Vegas is discussed, what’s often mentioned is the of money wagered — $439.5 million statewide in 2017. But with 3.78 million visitors coming to Las Vegas in March last year, they are doing more than gambling.
They are eating, drinking, going to shows, taking taxis and spending excessively. For service industry workers like Deppe and Ervolino, that means some days of nice tips.
But for Deppe, the tips are a nice bonus to watching the tournament with the friends he’s serving. That’s not necessarily lip-service. He sincerely enjoys his shift at GVR.