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Loss of NCAA Tournament big blow to Las Vegas sportsbooks

Updated March 12, 2020 - 7:35 pm

College basketball disappeared from Las Vegas betting boards on Thursday when the NCAA Tournament was canceled over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

The event was the final major U.S. sports domino to fall after every conference tournament was canceled Thursday morning. Also, the NHL and NBA suspended their 2019-20 regular seasons, and Major League Baseball suspended its spring training games and delayed the start of the 2020 regular season by at least two weeks.

The loss of the NCAA Tournament in particular dealt a massive blow to Nevada sportsbooks, which won $36.5 million on basketball (college and pro combined) in March 2019 from $498.7 million in bets.

Nevada Gaming Control Board research analyst Michael Lawton estimates 70 percent of the basketball handle was wagered on the NCAA Tournament. That amounts to $349 million, more than twice as much as the $154.7 million wagered on Super Bowl LIV.

The first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament are one of the busiest weekends in Las Vegas, and the event annually attracts thousands of visitors to the city’s sportsbooks.

“Not only the books but the whole town,” The Mirage sportsbook director Jeff Stoneback said. “This was a big event for the whole city. Room rates go up, and they’re full. Restaurants are busy every night, and the bars are slammed. The sportsbook is just the tip of the iceberg.”

All futures wagers made on the NCAA Tournament and conference tournaments will be refunded by the books. Stoneback said MGM Resorts was in the process Thursday of refunding mid six figures in futures wagers, and Westgate sportsbook vice president Jay Kornegay said his book refunded six figures worth of bets.

“March Madness, in many ways, is our biggest event of the year,” Kornegay said. “We’re certainly disappointed to not offer one of the biggest events of the year to our guests. I’ve already talked to a few guests that are very disappointed that they’re not going to be able to enjoy it, but they’re actually still coming in.

“The financial impact is tremendous across the city. It’s not just about the sportsbooks, but everything we offer in this hospitality business of ours. But we are hoping we get this under control and we can get back to normalcy as soon as possible.”

The books’ $36.5 million win on basketball in March 2019 accounted for 11 percent of their $329 million overall win last year.

Rules and refunds

Rules on NBA and NHL season win totals and division odds state that “teams must play 82 regular-season games for action.” In the case of a shortened season, those bets will be refunded — even if they were a mathematical lock to cash, such as under 47 wins on the Golden State Warriors (15-50), and vice versa.

All futures bets on conference and title odds are action despite a shortened season. If a championship is not played, all bets are refunded.

The rule on baseball win totals states that “teams must play 160 games for action.” For player props, a season must consist of at least 150 games.

What’s left to bet?

Sports bettors apparently have one option, NASCAR, which will continue to race without fans. The PGA Tour canceled The Players Championship after Thursday’s first round and shut down its other tournaments for the next three weeks.

“What can I tell you? There’s nothing to bet on,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said. “We can’t even book anything in Europe or anywhere else right now. The whole world’s suffering through this.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.

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