In the old days, when Jimmy Vaccaro first rolled into town and there were fewer rules and Las Vegas was more like the Wild West, it was easier to get deals done.
Everything seems too corporate and consolidated now. Bookmakers once were mavericks with colorful personalities and a willingness to gamble. These days, most of them are conservative when it comes to taking bets and speaking on the record, because the eye in the sky is often a clueless guy in a suit and tie, and he knows profit margins but nothing about point spreads.
Michael Gaughan is a sharp guy who knows how to run a casino and a sports book. So last week, when the South Point owner approached Vaccaro with an offer, there was no chance it was getting refused. The deal was done in about three minutes.
“It’s obviously old school. It’s a very short conversation and a handshake,” said Vaccaro, who immediately left his position as director of public relations for William Hill sports books.
Gaughan’s directive to Vaccaro is to promote the South Point’s new mobile phone wagering app and get the project rolling in the next two weeks, just in time for football season. Vaccaro, a name and personality synonymous with the sports betting industry, is an innovative oddsmaker and a pitchman/raconteur with credibility.
Vaccaro said his title is yet to be determined — this is an old-school deal — but it will be something similar to vice president of sports marketing. Bert Osborne runs the South Point book, and Vaccaro will push the mobile phone app, joining Cantor Gaming, Station Casinos and William Hill in that burgeoning end of the business.
“Michael obviously knows that, like everything else, if it’s not the wave of the future, it’s here now,” Vaccaro said.
“I left on good terms,” he said of exiting William Hill, where Joe Asher is the CEO for U.S. operations and Nick Bogdanovich is the top bookmaker.
Vaccaro smoothed the public relations transition when William Hill, Britain’s largest book, bridged the ocean and set up shop in Nevada last year. His departure is a small part of a bigger, developing picture.
William Hill remains in a strong position — along with MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment and Cantor — if sports betting is legalized nationally. Vaccaro won’t be a William Hill spokesman when that happens, and when might it happen?
“I would take a flier and say we could have it resolved in 24 months,” Vaccaro said. “It’s a different era now, a different climate.”
He pointed to Canada’s continued push for single-game sports wagering, which the NFL and NHL are resisting, and the several U.S. state budgets in need of revenue. Illegal sports betting is reportedly a $14 billion-a-year industry in Canada, which offers a lottery in which bettors can parlay three or more games.
“You would hate to see 10,000 people from Buffalo driving across the border to bet on the Patriots or Bills,” Vaccaro said.
William Hill is doing business in Delaware and New Jersey, which appears close to becoming the second state to allow full legal sports betting. Todd Fuhrman predicts it could be five years before we see it in 50 states.
“If you’re setting an over/under on how long it takes to get full legalized national sports wagering, I’ll take over 24 months for a max bet, as long as the NFL has a say in what’s going on,” said Fuhrman, a Don Best Sports analyst and former Caesars Palace oddsmaker. “I would love to see it happen. I just don’t see it happening that fast.
“In all honesty, if the NFL got on board with it, that’s all it takes. It could happen in six to nine months. But I think it takes at least five years.”
As soon as word spread of Vaccaro’s move from William Hill, speculation swirled that he was trying to break free from Asher’s grip. Vaccaro denied that, saying it was all about a relationship with Gaughan that dates almost 40 years.
Vaccaro found his way to Las Vegas in January 1975, when he started dealing blackjack. Later that year, at age 30, Vaccaro was offered a job by Gaughan, who was opening a sports book at the Royal Inn Casino, on Convention Center Drive near the old Stardust.
“Michael looked at me and said, ‘Do you know how to run a sports book?’ I said no,” Vaccaro said. “Michael said, ‘Neither do I. We’ll start it together.’
“We built a little hole in the wall. It was a turning point in my life. I love this, and I respect the industry. I raised two kids and supported two ex-wives, so it’s not that bad.”
In 1979, Gaughan and Vaccaro opened a book at the Barbary Coast, and then Vaccaro bounced around town for three decades until hooking on with William Hill.
As we enter the era of the globalization of sports betting, Vaccaro and Gaughan are back together, looking to catch the wave of the future.
Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.