Sunday, March 14, 2021 | 3 a.m.
Jay Kornegay, vice president of Westgate SuperBook, was unsure of what type of demand to expect when his property released viewing-party tickets and table reservations for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament starting on Friday.
Turns out he shouldn’t have been — certain dates and spaces sold out more than two weeks in advance. Basketball bettors and fans have shown a clear appetite to return to Las Vegas for the biggest sports gambling weekend of the year after they were denied the opportunity in 2020 with the tournament’s cancelation.
“The numbers are exceeding expectations despite some of the limitations we’re still dealing with,” Kornegay said. “These are positive signs that we’re inching back to normalcy.”
No, this year’s NCAA Tournament won’t be a vintage Las Vegas version where occupancy rates eclipse 98% and the first weekend competes for the busiest of the year as pandemic protocols continue to stay in place. But it might not be as far off as many expect either.
The Westgate isn’t the only resort throwing socially distanced watch parties; nearly every property along the Strip is doing the same. Reports indicate the response has been strong for all of them.
“From everything I’ve heard and seen, we are expecting to have a great weekend to start March Madness,” said Lisa Motley, director of sports marketing at Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “Obviously, it’s all under capacity limits so it won’t be what we’re used to but it’s a shot in the arm for the destination to come out of the gate with something this exciting and celebrating what we think might be the start of a return to a little bit of normalcy.”
The LVCVA is not putting out its usual tourism forecast for the tournament’s first weekend, which traditionally estimated an economic impact in the hundreds of millions. There’s still too much uncertainty in place between the coronavirus mandates and no past-year averages, but anecdotally, it appears the city is going to get a long-awaited economic boost.
Across the street from the Westgate, Sahara Las Vegas is going all-on on basketball. To ensure it abides by all the required safety measures, the property is selling tickets to watch games in four different lounges in addition to a centerpiece theater-viewing option.
Anthony Olheiser, Sahara vice president of food and beverage, said the resort was on pace to sell out of not only all viewing spots but also hotel rooms for the first weekend.
“We’re getting e-mails and calls every day questioning the pricing, what’s included,” Olheiser said. “I think people are doing a whole lot of shopping up and down the Strip. It’s reminiscent of the 2019 tournament and prior. There’s a lot of pent-up demand and I think people are just excited now more than ever.”
Resort and casino executives are certainly excited as the timing of last year’s worldwide shutdown couldn’t have been worse from a local financial perspective. The cancelation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament is something Kornegay still refers to as “devastating” for the sports betting industry.
In March 2019, gamblers wagered a record $498 million on basketball statewide — the gaming control board does not separate the NCAA Tournament from the total, but it surely accounted for the majority of the action. With sports betting’s surge in popularity, the 2020 total would have been even higher.
This year’s betting volume may come close despite diminished tourism numbers. Quarantine has been boon for sports betting as statewide records have regularly fallen. Sports books set a single-month handle record with $660 million wagered in October 2020, for instance, and an all-time win mark of $56 million on football in November.
The SuperBook has seen record handle in five of the last seven months, according to Kornegay.
“Sports betting is so popular right now,” Kornegay said. “People don’t have a lot of options these days, and sports betting is one of them so they’re taking advantage of that.”
Watch parties and public viewings numbered much fewer for last month’s Super Bowl — the biggest single-game event on the annual sports betting calendar — but the state still drew $136 million in wagers. That marked a decrease of $18 million from 2020 before shutdowns began, but still enough for the fifth-most of all-time.
“The tournament is going to see a spike, some really good numbers, could be record numbers,” Kornegay said. “I don’t think it will be a record just because there are so many hurdles we have to abide by, but it’s possible. I think you’re going to see something percentage-wise similar to the Super Bowl.”
Where this year’s tournament will really fall short locally of its predecessors is in non-gambling facets. Sports books only held $35.2 million, or about 14%, of the nearly $500 million wagered in 2019 with casinos' main revenue coming from those in town for the tournament spending money in areas like entertainment.
Options are still greatly reduced in that department leaving casinos scrambling with how to engage customers outside of basketball. Olheiser said Sahara was trying to view it more as an opportunity for creativity than a challenge.
He’s responded by greatly increasing the food and drink specials that will be available throughout all the watch parties.
“You have to be a little more unique with the times we’re in but just seeing people back in the property, back in the city is exciting to me,” Olheiser said. “Just getting Vegas busy again and seeing people excited for everything we have to offer.”
Other obstacles exist including one more intrinsic to this year’s tournament. As part of increased safety measures, the NCAA has shifted the schedule.
Instead of the standard Thursday-Sunday setup for the first two rounds, games will run from Friday to Monday. Kornegay has needed to explain that to at least one of his biggest customers, telling him he was welcome to his requested VIP booth on Thursday morning but that there wouldn’t be much going on.
The tournament gets even wonkier on the second weekend, when the third round is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday to push the quarterfinals back to Monday and Tuesday.
“It’s going to be one of the biggest Sweet 16s we’ve ever seen because it’s Saturday and Sunday,” Kornegay said. “But I can guarantee you this will be the worst-ever Elite 8 on Monday and Tuesday.”
The setup may not be ideal, but no one in Las Vegas is really complaining. Not after being denied the opportunity to host one of its biggest annual weekends last year.
The 2020 NCAA Tournament ushered in the shutdown of Las Vegas, but now the 2021 NCAA Tournament might be welcoming the comeback.
“We would have loved to have done this with the Super Bowl but we’re all trying to be safe and not be a super-spreader destination,” Motley said. “That’s the last thing in the world we want to do. We want to get people back to work so we’re going to do everything safe. Everything you see in the first weekend of March Madness will be done under protocols of COVID-19, but I think you’re still going to see a lot of parties and a lot of people in the destination having a great time.”