An insider's guide to March Madness in Las Vegas

March 11, 2023 07:05 AM


The next big Las Vegas sports experience is just weeks away.

What will soon take place in the desert during March Madness might even be a better attraction than the Super Bowl which has one big day. 

The opening two rounds of the NCAA tournament provide game action from Wednesday to Sunday night. There are loud, boisterous crowds and fans from all 68 tournament teams represented in sports books up and down the Strip. March Madness (the 14th - 19th) in Vegas is an annual trip for many and a bucket list item for even more. 

It is a trip that I have made with the same group of friends since the late 1990s with the few exceptions of COVID and the birth of my first kid. I am not sure what it says about me as a father or sports bettors, but it didn’t deter me from making the trip after the birth of my second kid. 

This familiarity with Las Vegas during March Madness provides me with insight to share. The perspective of a tourist is what novice visitors need since it is going to be much more relatable than if it comes from those who call Southern Nevada home. Those people can certainly provide fantastic recommendations to do within the city, but the opening week of March Madness is much different, and it is so hectic, locals avoid the Strip even more than usual.  

The trip to the city in mid-March is exhilarating and worth all the expenses, but in order to maximize your time, the preparation starts now. So with March Madness just a couple of weeks away, those traveling to Las Vegas need to act like Bill Self and start game planning for the tournament.  

Book it - Next to the Super Bowl, New Year’s Eve and Halloween, this is one of the biggest tourist draws of the year for the city. You want to go there no matter what, and the airlines and hotel operators are well aware of that. Inflated prices are the norm. 

To combat this, every step of the trip must be made well in advance. Even booking early will still bring plenty of sticker shock. 

At this point in late February, any prospective visitor holding out for a cheaper airline ticket or hotel room is making a mistake. The prices are going to keep on rising as the tournament approaches. 

Leave Your Significant Other at Home - March Madness in Vegas is a buddies trip— spring break for those who have gone years without being in a classroom. It's betting, drinking, eating, limited sleeping and then doing all of it over again for a few days in a row. That is not the best combination for a romantic getaway. 

If March Madness is your time away with your buddies, use time wisely to build up some equity in your relationship to earn some time away. Now is the time to go out to dinner, buy some flowers, or suggest a night out to watch a Rom-Com.  

Leave Your Clubs at Home - If your goal is to maximize the basketball and party offerings, there will be no time for golf. All the nearby courses are booked tight and that translates to around 6-7 hours on the course… away from the sports books. Those March greens fees are also double your most expensive course back home.

I have been to Vegas during March Madness with golf buddies of mine, and we have never played a round. Drinking, betting, eating and some sleeping take precedent.  

Get your golf fix by betting on the Valspar Championship, played the same week at the first and second round of the basketball tournament. 

Start Thinking College Hoops Now - Often on the plane trip out, I see and hear people doing homework on the tournament and teams that appear to be for the first time. The goal should be to have fun and make winning bets. Just guessing on what teams to play and relying on brand-name teams is a terrible way of handicapping. 

College basketball talk will dominate the sports media for the next couple of weeks. Tune into VSiN, and read the newsletter. Immerse yourself in college basketball news. 

Bettors who have been involved with college hoops since October should review their futures portfolio to see if any tickets need to be added or if longshots are still around for hedging purposes. At this point, there appear to be about 15 legit contenders from Houston ( 700 DraftKings) at the top to Creighton ( 3000 DraftKings)

Prep work should also include downloading all the apps for the Nevada books. Make sure to wait and make any initial deposits until you are within the state to get the sign-up bonuses. 

Pack lightly - Your March Madness Vegas attire should lean heavily towards, t-shirts, shorts, a golf shirt with a collar and jeans/casual pants. Bring one dress-up outfit for the night out at an expensive restaurant. Hopefully, all of this can be packed into a carry-on bag. That saves money instead of checking it in with the airline and time at the baggage carousel at what will be a packed Harry Reid (which will always be McCarran to me).

Be Ready for Massive Crowds - Every possible line in town this week will be long—at the airport, check-in at the hotel, sportsbook, restaurants, and table games.  Visitors need to be mentally prepared to be around so many people and have a much different Vegas experience than most other times of the year. If this is a bucket list item for you, the same holds true for the thousands of others bumping into each other trying to walk down the Strip. This mob of guests means they will all be at least three-deep at the table games looking at $25 minimum for Blackjack and Craps. For those looking for $5 during March Madness, it might take a ride to Primm to find some.

Where to Watch - This could be one of the most important decisions made by March Madness enthusiasts. The options include “watch parties” sponsored by all the major casinos. They offer food and drink and seats to watch the game. However, those tickets usually go for north of $125 per session, the food tends to be from the mozzarella sticks family and the seats aren’t always in good viewing distance. Want better seats? Expect a higher price tag. 

Watch parties are expensive, and that unexpected cost for some travelers cuts into their overall budget. Another downside of watch parties is it ties groups to one venue for the entire day.

Getting a seat in the sportsbook is the result of wetting a lot of beaks. So for those March Madness first-timers, a watch party ticket for at least one day might be a justifiable cost to best soak in the atmosphere.  

The veterans should value the mobility that bouncing around can offer and look at other venues off the Strip. Heading out to the Westgate, Red Rock or the South Point provides less cost and crowds while still hearing the roars for every last-second bucket that alters a spread.

Having the option of betting via mobile apps gives freedom to move around the city and head out to local establishments and spend some time at the pool. 

Get to Circa - Visiting the largest sportsbook in the world and Stadium Swim (which requires an admission fee) must be part of the trip. Would you ever go to South Dakota for the first time and not take a visit to Mount Rushmore? 

Get a selfie with Pauly Howard - While at Circa, stop by the VSiN studio and get a selfie with Mitch Moss’ favorite on-air partner.

Go In-N-Out - While on the topic of VSIN personalities, make like Matt Youmans and head to one of Las Vegas’ In-N-Out locations. Doing so is a priority for many East Coast visitors who don’t have one near them back home. Ask for the Animal Style fries. 

Go Local - Any person making a trip to Vegas will get a number of suggestions on places to eat. All of them are probably good choices. The city is known for its dining scene. 

My group of March Madness buddies always makes it to these places off the Strip: Nora’s Cuisine (5780 W Flamingo Rd), Ellis Island (5780 W Flamingo Rd), Pizza Rock (201 N 3rd St), Capo’s (5675 W Sahara Ave), and Andiamo’s (The D). 

Because of time, money and crowds, the choices are likely going to be skewed towards casual over fine dining. Make at least one expensive night out with steak and good wine. That is where Andiamo’s is the best choice. If you want to stay on the Strip, head over to STK at the Cosmopolitan. 

Be Flexible - Whenever or wherever dinner reservations can be made, they are likely going to be odd times. The prime 7 p.m. spot you want is already taken. 

Hoops action will be taking place between 9:00 am and 10:00 pm. That long schedule means eating times are going to be much different than a traditional vacation. 

For other forms of entertainment, like perhaps a place like Sapphire or Spearmint Rhino, consider other times than Friday or Saturday night. Most of your time then will be spent in a long line outside the velvet ropes. Call an audible and head there when there is still some sunlight in the desert. 

Bring it Home - Make sure to delegate some time on your last day in Las Vegas to empty out your balance of the sportsbooks you can’t access at home. Any amount you leave in a Nevada-only book is basically providing them with an interest-free loan until your next visit. 

March Madness isn’t just the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament - With the crowds and prices so high during the first two rounds, consider making the Vegas trip during the conference tournaments played in the city. Traveling fans bring the atmosphere and there is more room to enjoy the surroundings. 

Starting this March 2nd, the West Coast Conference will be there along with the WAC, Big West (in Henderson), Mountain West, and Pac-12.

Another option, especially for those who have had their fill of Vegas March Madness crowds is the Sweet 16 which brings fewer people, lower prices but enough action to satisfy every traveler’s needs.  

For those college basketball fans on their way to Las Vegas to take in the tournament action, here are some more tips to maximize the March Madness. 

What is your priority? - Some fans are going to Vegas because the games give them a reason to go to Vegas. While in the desert, it is their time to splurge on drinking, eating, playing table games, and having an overall great vacation. The tournament games going on at the same time is just a nice byproduct of a March trip. 

This type of Vegas visit doesn’t necessarily lead to a positive ROI while betting on college hoops. So for those who fit this profile, set the unit size now to be wagered on games.  

The size of that unit should be included in the overall budget for the trip.

When there is an emphasis on partying, the college basketball betting side of your brain is probably going to suffer. Set a unit size to something conservative like $50 so a win is a little addition to the overall kitty and a loss doesn’t ruin your day. 

According to the most recent data, travelers gambled an average of $717.51 over a four-day span in 2021. Keep in mind that would be a little less than a $25 unit for all 32 first-round games, and it wouldn’t include any table games. 

For those who are going to bet the games in hopes of bringing more money home than what was spent, consider increasing the unit size and make sure your mind is focused on the games. Get some sleep, drink water, and don’t let the partying overtake the time spent handicapping. 

Determine a game plan from the start by taking some self-inventory on what is the most important element of the trip - partying on betting on college hoops? 

Where does your oil leak? - Everyone has a plan for Vegas until they walk into the casino and get punched in the face with all the sights and sounds. Like it or not, all bettors leak oil somewhere. That’s the self-control deficiency where winnings drip out of the wallet.For some, it is table games. Others it is expensive meals, pretty women, or alcohol. I have had too many winning college basketball tickets unfortunately turn into oil spills at the craps table.  

Right now, ask yourself where does your oil leak? Remember the answer and keep yourself accountable once the action starts.

The $20 sandwich - why the hell not? - No bigger proponent of this hotel check-in maneuver than VSiN’s Pauly Howard. Try handing the person behind the hotel counter a $20 bill between the driver's license and credit card while first checking in. This subtle addition sometimes leads to a room upgrade or early check-in. Make it a $50 sandwich if you are staying at the Bellagio or Aria. In my experience, it works much better with an early check-in.

Getting into the room earlier or having a better one, in general, can only improve the trip from the start. 

In a tourist-driven city fueled by the service industry, keep cash on hand at all times for tips. Those tips are a must and should be included in your overall travel budget.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day - There is no shortage of dining options in Las Vegas. That doesn’t mean a college basketball bettor needs to have the customary three meals. Lunch is often going to get in the way of the games and could limit some in-game betting action. So skip lunch. 

Instead, eat a big breakfast before the games start. A larger meal here should tide a bettor over until dinner time when most of the games will be close to over. For those who like a buffet experience, the breakfast option at any hotel is going to be more than decent, and it usually comes at a reduced price compared to dinner time. 

Still, there is a large upcharge for breakfast at any hotel—on or off the Strip. The morning meal is a good time to venture away and eat at a local establishment. 

While it is technically in a hotel, Du-Par’s at the Suncoast offers a hearty pancake breakfast worth the cost.

Find a tribe - The atmosphere for the games in Vegas is unparalleled for the action. That goes for any round of the NCAA tournament or conference tournament week. Just being around the hordes of boisterous and passionate fans makes the Vegas March Madness experience truly unique and something bettors must find a way to be part of.  

In those large crowds are bettors with only allegiance to the team they have a ticket on at that moment standing side-by-side with fans of all 68 teams represented in the tourney, living and dying with every possession. 

No matter where you go, there will be flocks of fans sporting their schools’ gear and colors. People who are normally on the conservative side back home will transform into another life force by running hysterically around the sportsbook after their team wins on a last-second shot. Chants and fight songs are yelled out spontaneously.  

Baskets made at the end of the game that would appear meaningless to some but impact the line, can make a room full of bettors all feel like Jim Valvano in 1983. You must be part of this excitement by immersing yourself in the crowds. 

Sure, you could watch the game in a more private setting, but whenever will you be part of hundreds of people yelling “Roll Tide”?

The fan base I thought always traveled the best to Vegas for the games was Wisconsin. They don’t have a badger in this year’s race. 

So look for Kansas, Michigan State, Arizona, and Gonzaga to have the best fanbase representation. Watch a game when one of their teams plays; there will be some good stories to take back home. 

Weather - Yes, the temperature in Las Vegas is warmer than in Toledo or Sioux Falls, however, the outdoor pool scene might not be what some are hoping for. Lower your Vegas pool expectations so there isn’t disappointment. 

Other than Circa’s Stadium Swim, most resorts will have a scaled-down version of their late spring and summer pool scenes. It will still provide a chance to be out in the sun but there will be less action and fewer waitstaff than in the glamorized Vegas pool environment.

For those who want to take advantage of the desert weather, carve out some time to go out to Red Rock Canyon for a hike at a favorable temperature compared to the triple-digits that will soon be there. 

After spending time on the trails, check out the downtown Summerlin food and beverage options then head over to Red Rock casino to watch some later games with a more subdued and sharper crowd than on the Strip. 

A friendly public service announcement - Don’t forget there are still laws and rules to follow in a city people associate so much with wild behavior. There are plenty of police officers and security guards keeping an eye out over the controlled chaos. Do you even need to be reminded that urinating in public is against the law?

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