As director of Race and Sports Operations at Wynn Las Vegas for close to a decade, Johnny Avello has set the odds on everything from the Super Bowl to Stanley Cup Finals, as well as the Oscars and reality television competitions.
Avello is one of Las Vegas’s bettter-known bookmakers, having appeared on television, in dozens of magazines and on the radio. He’s set lines on the Grammy Awards for Rolling Stone and on “Survivor” for TV Guide and the “Today” show.
He’s also widely known for his unique choice of setting odds on the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Avello accurately picked last year’s winner, a 4-year-old Pekingese named Malachy.
Avello arrived in Las Vegas in 1979, dealing blackjack and selling insurance before becoming a ticket writer at the Sands in 1987. He said he learned how to deal all the games in New York City before moving to Southern Nevada.
“My first job was as a dealer at the Hotel Nevada in downtown Las Vegas,” Avello said. “Jackie Gaughan owned it. I made $13 a day plus $8 to $9 in tips, but I didn’t care because I was doing something I really enjoyed.”
Avello moved with Gaughan to the Western Hotel before leaving for the Barbary Coast.
“I came out here with absolutely nothing,” Avello said. “I drove around town in a car without air for three years. But I loved what I was doing.”
After working every job in a sports book, Avello took over for Lenny Del Genio. Avello said the gaming business has changed a lot since 1979, but sports wagering is still all about managing risk.
Sports betting has never been more popular, with casino visitors wagering more than $3.4 billion on sporting events last year. Gross gaming revenues totaled just over $170 million, only 4.9 percent of the total amount wagered.
“It’s an up-and-down business,” Avello said. “You have to have the guts for it. Your bosses have to have the guts for it because there are going to be ups and downs.”
Question: Whom did you learn bookmaking from?
Answer: I started going to the racetrack when I was 5 years old. I knew that game pretty well. My dad used to do these parlay cards. All the guys in my town thought they were wiseguys. We used to bet at an early age. It was more about betting than sports. Flipping cards for quarters. It’s just a gambling mentality. When I got into the business I was a ticket writer at the Hilton and I kind of learned all the aspects of what it takes to be in the business. The odds part to me comes easy and it always has.
Question: What is the state of the horse racing industry?
Answer: It is in a little bit of trouble. It’s a declining game for all the reasons that you’ve heard. The people are too old and younger people aren’t interested anymore. That is somewhat true. I was down in Del Mar … and I saw they had a concert after the race, which I thought was a good idea. There were a lot of young people that were coming in. And if they came in before the races were over, they got a better price. So I saw them betting the last race, which was good. But the game itself is in trouble. There are not enough horses … there are too many tracks.
Question: How did you develop an interest in setting lines for nonsporting events?
Answer: I was at Bally’s, 1990 to 2005. I worked under Lenny Del Genio. So Lenny used to do the Oscar odds, he was doing them from the late 1980s on. Lenny (moved on) and I took over and I wanted to keep it going. I did it differently than Lenny. But I think the breakout for reality odds was in the late 1990s; it was then with the first “Survivor” winner (Richard Hatch). TV Guide called me and asked if I would make the odds on “Survivor,” so I did. Then the “Today” show came out and we did it live. I think that was the first time reality odds were made. Then I just kept doing them from there. I’ve done odds on all the reality shows, but I’ve also continued to do them on all the entertainment shows — the Emmys, Oscars, Tony’s because I really enjoy it. I do the Grammy’s for Rolling Stone magazine.
Question: When do you think people will be able to walk into Wynn’s race and sports book and place a bet on the Oscars? Are you going to seek permission from the Nevada Gaming Control Board?
Answer: I always say there are bigger fish to fry with the GCB. You work on things that make real money … I haven’t been pushing it. I know there are some barriers there that will keep us from doing it. The Gaming Control Board wants you to tell them how they get their results. I can’t explain to them how they get their results. Pricewaterhouse gives the results to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. When do they give them to them, on Wednesday or Tuesday? I don’t know. So it is possible we can do something and close the odds a week before. I think that might be doable. But then you take the betting interest out of it because people want to bet now, not two weeks prior to the Oscars.
Question: Wynn Las Vegas is one of the few independent sports books left; does that hurt your business that William Hill, Cantor Gaming are doing business in Las Vegas?
Answer: It doesn’t hurt our business at all. It actually enhances our business. You are going to find things different here; we opened up the first college football lines. It’s an attraction for bettors to be able to bet first. We take a pretty good-size bet and you might find a different (line) than you would find at other places. A network of 10 properties will all have the same number and then you can come here and maybe something a little different or a whole different event. In the long run, it is going to be good for us.
Question: Has the popularity of college and professional football brought in a new customer?
Answer: Not really. It is still a middle-class customer. It’s the guy who wants to place a big bet. There are women now who bet football. Football is the game now. If you look at our numbers, between college and professional football that’s about 50 percent to 60 percent of our handle. So that’s a big number.
Question: Are brands like Wynn Las Vegas helping to bring sports betting out of the shadows?
Answer: I don’t think so. You are in Las Vegas. And if you’re in Las Vegas you know that you can make a sports bet. You have been able to make a sports bet here (since) 1973, so there are no back rooms in the discussion.
Question: Overall, where are we in terms of the acceptance of sports betting?
Answer: We are at a high level. We are such a high level that you are going to see it eventually. I don’t know when — one year or maybe 10 years — you are going to see other states doing what we are doing. Maybe not in the same capacity we are doing it, maybe they won’t be allowed to. But you are going to see it. New Jersey has been pushing it. And if you see New Jersey (get sports betting), then it opens the door for everyone. So yes, it is spoken about. It’s a lucrative business. The way they look at it is ‘Why should we allow underground bookies to do this why don’t we bring it to the forefront.’ We’ll make money, the state will make money, create jobs and I think this is what they are looking at these days and they should be.
Question: What about your relationship with the various sports leagues?
Answer: We have a very good relationship with the NCAA. They come out once a year to see how we are doing. We’ve shown them our operations. Other bookmakers also have shown them their operations, and they are pretty comfortable with what we do. If you don’t know what we do, you think that it’s a back-of-house operation, with guys smoking cigars and money going into bags. But now they know exactly what we do. If there is any funny business going on with a game, we are the first to wave the red flag. And we’ve done it. It happened in the middle 1990s with Arizona State basketball, when the spreads were moving six or seven points and everybody was asking ‘what is going on?’ Somebody from our fraternity here called the PAC-10 and said ‘something is up’ and they checked into it and found there were guys shaving points. We are a good watchdog. As for the NFL, I think they know we are a good watchdog but they don’t want to jump on board and say Las Vegas is our friend.
Question: How do you set the odds, for example, on horse racing?
Answer: When it comes to horse racing, the wager goes through a parimutual betting system with us and the track getting a percentage. When it comes to the Future Book that’s an in house line. We have Breeders Cup odds up now. I’m working on the Kentucky Derby Future Book right now. I go through every single horse and look at their past performances. Then I set the odds on each one.
Question: Do you think the existence of sports books in Las Vegas in any way prevents the city from attracting a professional sports franchise?
Answer: Whether it does now I don’t know. Mayor (Oscar) Goodman was talking about an NBA team in town, but if we bring a team in we won’t be able to take bets. (If you own a casino and a sports franchise, the book can’t take bets on the games.)
Contact reporter Chris Sieroty at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3893. Follow @sierotyfeatures on Twitter.