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Bettors, sportsbooks finally back in action

As a bookmaker for more than 40 years, Jimmy Vaccaro’s daily life revolved around the sports schedule. Wake up, check the late scores from the night before and prepare to book today’s action.

The routine gamblers and oddsmakers followed for so long ended abruptly in mid-March when the games were canceled, the casinos were closed and the world stopped turning.

“It’s insane,” Vaccaro said. “The last five or six weeks, there was absolutely nothing. No scores to check. I thought, what the (bleep) is going on here? I’ve been in this racket my whole life. I need the action at age 74.”

Vaccaro starts each day with a trip to McDonald’s, where he orders a Coke and tips the drive-thru workers. He reads the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a sure sign of old age because nobody under 40 gets the newspaper delivered anymore, unfortunately. He listens to the VSiN morning shows. He talks with a few friends on the phone. He sometimes wanders around Target. He always winds up at home to watch “Columbo” reruns and Turner Classic Movies. That’s his new routine.

Last week, something changed. Vaccaro was seen strolling through the South Point’s empty casino more than a few times.

“I walked around and talked to the security kids and maintenance people,” he said. “The least I can do is say hello to everybody.”

The darkest days seem behind us. The sports world is slowly springing back to life and, if things continue to trend positively, the end of the summer could be filled with games.

Most Las Vegas books are cranking up business, and bettors were back in action Saturday and Sunday with a UFC card, golf, NASCAR and European soccer forming the first real multisport weekend in two months. Business was brisk, relatively speaking. It was nowhere near a return to normalcy, but it was something.

Vaccaro visited the South Point sportsbook and resumed his oddsmaker role for a couple of hours each day. All wagering is through the phone app until the casino’s tentative reopening in early June.

“It’s relieving some of the tension and giving people something to do,” Vaccaro said. “Not that I’m a genius, but I figure people are just dying to do something on the weekend.”

While the NBA and NHL move toward restarting and MLB officials debate ways to finally start the season, UFC President Dana White blazed a coronavirus recovery trail for the major pro leagues to follow by staging three fight cards in eight days in Jacksonville, Fla.

“The wagering handle overall was pretty good, and UFC dominated it again,” Westgate SuperBook oddsmaker Jeff Sherman said.

William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said about 10 bets in the $10,000 range showed up on the UFC Fight Night card Saturday. In a wild heavyweight main event, Alistair Overeem narrowly escaped getting knocked out in the first round and rallied to stop Walt Harris, a -160 favorite, three minutes into the second.

The card featured three controversial judging decisions, giving angry bettors something to complain about via Twitter.

“I’ve got to give Dana White credit,” Vaccaro said. “At least something is opening up. I can’t say I’m a UFC guy, but I watched it and it was compelling. I really enjoyed it.”

Bogdanovich said the UFC handle at William Hill topped what was wagered on Russian table tennis, but not by a large margin.

“It’s the wildest stuff I’ve ever seen,” Bogdanovich said of the recent table-tennis betting surge. “Everything is crazy. It’s just the world we live in now.”

Kevin Harvick won in NASCAR’s return in front of empty grandstands in Darlington, S.C. Multiple bookmakers said Sunday’s race handle was comparable to the Daytona 500.

The least-bet event was a golf skins game in Florida pitting the favored Rory McIlroy/Dustin Johnson against Rickie Fowler/Matthew Wolff. Most of the action was on the underdog, and the result was a bad beat. McIlroy/Johnson did not win a hole after No. 6, yet they took the match when McIlroy won a gimmick closest-to-the-pin contest on a 120-yard tiebreaker hole. The NBC telecast ended without showing the measurements of the final shots, leaving viewers to sort out the mystery.

“I don’t know how they won it,” Bogdanovich said. “They did rock-paper-scissors to see who won it. That was a horrible ending.”

The dull, discombobulated golf match sums up the 2020 sports scene. It has been a mess. But last weekend also marked the beginning of what could be a better summer for bettors and bookmakers.

Another golf match — this one pitting Tiger Woods/Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson/Tom Brady — is set for Sunday. The NASCAR season continues, and so does horse racing. The next UFC card is scheduled for May 30 in Arizona or Las Vegas. Overseas wagering options include soccer, table tennis and Korean baseball.

“When you get through a weekend like this,” Sherman said, “it’s going to put the wheels in motion and you’re going to start to see more sports each week.”

It’s not a long shot that we will see baseball, basketball and hockey by July or August, and the NFL looks like a good bet to start as scheduled in September.

We are still a long way from seeing life return to normal, but this is the start of something.

 

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