Leroy’s owner still ahead of game

In the mid-1980s, Leroy’s Race and Sports Book owner Vic Salerno spent $7,000 to install a satellite television dish atop his building.

At the time, Salerno thought he was making a heck of an investment.

Leroy’s was an independent betting parlor, tucked between a pawnshop and a men’s clothing store in an aging downtown strip mall on First Street behind the Golden Nugget

"I think the dish was bigger than the whole roof," Salerno says.

Fledgling satellite TV technology allowed Leroy’s to show customers live sporting events from across the country. Most independent sports books were showing only the games broadcast on network television or cable channels.

The satellite dish expense translated into increased wagering, which helped in Leroy’s survival. The large casinos expanded their race and sports books over time and sent Las Vegas’ independent operators — Del Mar, Churchill Downs and the Rose Bowl — into extinction.

Nowadays, it’s commonplace to watch sporting events on your iPhone.

Salerno, 67, laughs when he considers the changes Nevada’s sports betting industry and gambling technology have undergone since he took over Leroy’s in April 1978. At the time, wagering odds were posted and changed on chalkboards. The best sports books were small smoke-filled parlors operated separately from casinos.

"You think back, we were writing tickets by hand. I never could have imagined any of this," Salerno says, referring to computerized betting terminals and electronic reader boards.

Salerno is still in the game.

Leroy’s is now a gaming technology company. It operates the race and sports books for 72 Nevada casinos. Leroy’s also has a kiosk business that provides sports wagering opportunities for customers inside Buffalo Wild Wings and the Inn Zone Lounges.

Leroy’s rolled out mobile wagering applications for BlackBerry and Android smartphones this year. The company is seeking Nevada gaming regulatory approval to make the application available for Android’s tablet technology.

"You have to change. You have to keep adapting," Salerno says. "Or else you will get left behind."

It’s with that thought Salerno agreed on April 14 to sell his American Wagering Inc., the owner of Leroy’s, to British bookmaker William Hill Plc for $18 million. William Hill, which has 2,359 land-based sports betting locations in the United Kingdom, also bought Northern Nevada’s Club Cal Neva sports book operations for $21 million.

Once approved by gaming regulators, the deal will make William Hill the state’s biggest sports book operator.

Salerno believes William Hill will be able to help move in-game wagering and other innovations quickly forward.

He also envisions William Hill taking Nevada’s sports betting industry into Internet gaming, if the activity is ever legalized. Salerno is angry that millions of dollars in wagers have gone to offshore sports books when Nevada could have easily regulated the activity.

"Nevada should have been the leader in Internet sports wagering," Salerno says. "If it does happen, (William Hill) has the technology to carry us through."

Change is something Salerno has experienced throughout his life.

He gave up a lucrative six-figure-a-year dentistry practice in picturesque Marina Del Rey, Calif., to become a bookmaker because he was bored.

Two years ago, Salerno had gastric band surgery. He has since dropped more than 150 pounds and says he feels "years younger."

The old Leroy’s’ location is gone. The strip mall has since been demolished to make way for the Golden Nugget’s Rush Tower expansion.

"It’s all good," Salerno says.

Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/stutz.

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