You’ve come a long way, Vegas.
As we head into Super Bowl Weekend, we’re witnessing a “Perfect Storm” that should lead to a flood of wagers this weekend and wash away last year’s record handle of $138.48 million in Nevada’s sports books. The confluence of factors include the increasing acceptance of sports betting – evidenced by the push by New Jersey and other states to overturn the federal ban on the much-loved activity, which is actually being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court – as well as a compelling matchup between the NFL’s top two teams in the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. It also helps to have a booming economy, with Americans clearly voting with their disposable income that they love to have a little action, especially on Super Sunday.
I mean, even for those who normally don’t pay attention to odds or point spreads, it’s hard to find any media outlet that hasn’t mentioned the Patriots are 4- to 4.5-point favorites over the Eagles (and that the Eagles were motivated by being underdogs in their two NFC playoff games despite having home-field advantage) and/or put together a segment on proposition wagers. Those props bets are also given a lot of credit for the year-over-year increases in Super Bowl wagering and sports books here are also seeing huge boosts in mobile wagering (and there’s certain to also be a hefty increase on in-game when the actual game rolls around as that type of wagering also continues to explode in popularity).
I’ve lived here in Vegas since 1998, so this is my 20th Super Bowl, and I’m amazed at the changes I’ve seen, but not only in the amount wagered or in the media coverage (which I was proud to be a part of the launch of ESPN Chalk in 2014 as the Worldwide Leader took the bold step of being more overt in its coverage of sports betting, and now with the Vegas Stats & Information Network, where you won’t find more daily sports betting coverage anywhere) but also in regards to the city’s relationship with the NFL.
Let’s time travel back to just after the turn of the century, circa 2000 to 2001.
If you follow today’s sports betting industry, you’ll recognize a lot of the same faces (though with darker hair and a lot less wrinkles and many of us with much smaller belts). I was a young(er) roving reporter covering the race & sports book beat as the Las Vegas correspondent for the Daily Racing Form. The Stardust still had its long-held reputation as the home of the Las Vegas Line and was headed by Bob Scucci (who had recently been featured in the book “The Odds” by a similarly younger Chad Millman). Art Manteris was still at the Hilton SuperBook that he built in 1989. Jay Kornegay was at the Imperial Palace and boasting that his staff had the “Most Props on the Planet.” Robert Walker was at the Mirage. Vinny Magliulo was at Caesars Palace and about to transfer to a 9-to-5 job at the Gaughan family’s Las Vegas Dissemination Company. John Avello was at Bally’s. Nick Bogdanovich was at Mandalay Bay. Jimmy Vaccaro was at the downtown Golden Nugget. Marc Nelson was getting ready to open the Palms book for George Maloof. Chris Andrews was up at Reno’s Club Cal Neva, which was about to expand with satellites into southern Nevada and eventually have its network bought by William Hill.
Super Bowl wagering in Nevada had increased steadily the prior decade from $40 million in 1991 to $71 million in 2000. This was despite the emergence of Internet offshore books in the 90’s, which obviously took a lot of business away from Nevada but also helped bring more nationwide bettors into the game and feed the industry as a whole.
However, there was trouble looming for Nevada as U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) was pushing for his Amateur Sports Integrity Act, seeking to ban college sports betting in his neighboring state of Nevada. It was a scary time for our industry as the commissioners of the pro sports leagues, including the NFL’s Paul Tagliabue, were in support of the NCAA and it was clear that they saw this as an opportunity to outlaw betting on their own sports if McCain and the NCAA were to succeed.
The Nevada sports books’ defense was that they shouldn’t have been viewed as the enemy but that they were actually watchdogs for the NCAA and sports leagues as they were regulated and monitored suspicious betting patterns to ensure that the games were on the up and up. But it fell on deaf ears. With the Republicans in control of the Senate, it looked like a done deal, especially as the bill was referred to as Screw Nevada II because there was no political reason for any other states to support Nevada’s case since they didn’t have sports betting themselves (historical note: Screw Nevada I was the bill to transport and store the nation’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, just 80 miles northwest of the booming metropolis of Las Vegas). I’ll save the full story for another day, but ultimately college sports betting survived here because Sen. Jim Jeffords (R-Ver.) switch from Republican to Independent, giving Democrats control of the Senate and McCain lost his chairmanship and moved onto campaign finance reform as his pet project and his subsequent failed presidential run in 2008.
That was a close call, as I truly believe legalized sports betting in this country would have never reached its current stage if McCain, the NCAA and the pro leagues had succeeded with their plans at that time. Still, it was clear the NFL was opposed to anything to do with Las Vegas. If you’ve ever seen an ad for a Las Vegas Super Bowl party or grabbed a packet of Super Bowl props, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the words “Super Bowl” are never used as it’s the NFL’s carefully guarded trademark (as well as the shield and the Lombardi Trophy or any official logo to do with the league or game). I assume you’ve heard all the euphemisms used here for Super Bowl parties or prop sheets: the Big Game. The Pro Football World Championship. Or the current year’s alphabet soup that was as long as SB XXXVIII if you go back XIV years, though this year’s is the relatively short SB LII.
Speaking of Super, er, Big Game parties, if you’ve heard Vaccaro on VSiN the past two weeks, he, like everyone else, credits the William “Refrigerator” Perry touchdown for the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX in 1986 with truly blowing open the doors on the popularity of prop bets, but he also gives credit to Caesars Palace for opening everyone’s eyes in town to how to put on supersized parties that have turned Las Vegas into the biggest destination for Super Sunday celebrators.
I concur. I remember attending my first Super Bowl party at Caesars in 1999. Magliulo greeted my group as I was managing editor at the weekly GamingToday newspaper at the time. The food, including carving stations, was out of this world and all the drinks were free in a ballroom surrounded by movie-sized screens. There was a chocolate football (full size) that I took home with me afterward and it lasted a week. I’m pretty sure those were for the taking (if not, I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired). Anyway, it was decadent and parties like it starting pop up all over Vegas.
Now, let’s flash-forward to 2004.
In the ensuing years, the nation had come out of the 9/11 tragedy and the economy was booming. Business was good for a lot of us here in Vegas and elsewhere. There has been some shuffling in the sports book scene – Manteris was already at Station Casinos for three years, Magliulo was secretly designing the 2005 opening of the original Wynn sports book (similar to how he quietly worked behind the scenes in helping build VSiN, but that’s also another story for another day), Bogdanovich had lost his Mandalay Bay job in 2002 due to the Charles Barkley fiasco (yet another story that can wait), Kornegay was in his last year at the Imperial Palace before moving to the Hilton (now Westgate) and Vaccaro had somehow landed the gig of opening the Atlantis sports book in the Bahamas – but otherwise not much had changed.
Well, one thing had changed. Vegas was quickly becoming more corporate. While I had good working relationships with all the race & sports book directors around town, they were very tight-lipped around this time, certainly nothing like we have today where sports book directors talk about the size of the bets they’re taking or which sides the sharps are on. Some books, such as the Stardust which had a daily “Stardust Line” radio show and had been part of Millman’s book would allow their directors to talk more openly about how they fared over a given weekend, but that wasn’t the case at most of the publicly traded companies. I remember asking Chuck Esposito when he was the top guy at Caesars if he won or lost that weekend and he said “All I’m allowed to tell you is we had a full book and everyone had a great time.”
But the big news here in regards to sports betting and the NFL was that in the previous year, 2003, the league banned any Las Vegas ads during the Super Bowl telecast. It didn’t matter that the city’s R&R advertising agency submitted commercials that didn’t include any mention or images of gambling or even any casino buildings (historical note: this was during the height of the popular “What Happens Here Stays Here” campaign).
Things got pretty ugly. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, the former mob attorney, threatened to sue the NFL. This all reached a head in 2004 when R&R produced a commercial that it aired in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl Weekend on ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports, TBS and several of the major non-sports cable channels like VH1, CNN, MSNBC, Bravo and Comedy Central. I described it in a DRF column like this:
The Las Vegas Strip is lit up in all its glory with the sounds of a roaring crowd. The text flashes by on the bottom of the screen. "It's the biggest game of the year. Hundreds of thousands of fans are on the edge of their seats, living and dying with every play, going nuts on every snap. If only it was this exciting . . . at the game in Houston."
The NFL was obviously not too pleased with the jab and countered with a vicious blow. The Palms, which had been advertising a party with the game to be shown on movie screens at its Brenden Theatres, received a cease-and-desist letter from the NFL nine days before the game stating that showing the Super Bowl on such a large screen was against the law. David Proper, legal counsel for the NFL, told me at the time that the Palms stood “in violation of Section 110 of the copyright law. The law states you can't show a copyrighted event on a screen larger than normally would be found in a household, and you can't charge admission." He also added that anyone in violation of copyright laws would be subject to a civil lawsuit from the NFL.
Jim Hughes, a Palms spokesman at the time, filled me in that "Copyright laws that the NFL are quoting allow us to show the game on TV screens up to 55 inches in diagonal, but forbids us from showing it on screens larger than that or on any commercial screen."
By the time Super Sunday rolled around, I knew the Palms had downsized its party, but I hadn’t heard of any more letters or canceled plans by any casinos, so I took my wife to Caesars Palace as she had grown to love their parties. Now, even though I’m sure we didn’t own anything bigger than a 40-inch TV in 2004, it was still amazing how big of a letdown it was when – instead of being in a huge ballroom with movie-sized screens – we were put in a curtained-off cubicle probably no bigger than our living room with 6 or 7 other couples and watching the game on a 50-inch TV with a minimalist buffet spread (no carving stations this time).
My wife didn’t go back to any Super Bowl parties for several years after that disappointing experience and it wasn’t until 2009 that the NFL even allowed Las Vegas to again advertise on postseason telecasts (but still with no gambling references allowed). During these years, there was always discussions about if Las Vegas was big enough to be able to lure and then support a professional sports team, even before addressing the gambling issue. While the NBA was long seen as the best shot – with the city already being basketball-crazy with its historic UNLV teams, plus the Maloofs owning the Sacramento Kings and being a possibility to relocate – while the NHL was another possibility, MLB and especially the NFL were huge longshots. I remember many times during those years being certain that the bridge between Las Vegas and the NFL was too far to close the gap in my lifetime, especially with the aforementioned bitter history. It also didn’t seem to help matters when Goodman would publicly call the NFL hypocrites for not wanting anything to do with Las Vegas yet the league would hold games in London and Mexico where legalized betting was taking place within a Hail Mary of the stadiums.
Regardless, Super Bowl handle continued to grow here in Las Vegas and Nevada as a whole, plateauing only a little bit during the recession from 2007-2009. The handle finally topped the $100 million mark by leaping from $98.9 million in 2013 to $119.4 million in 2014. After a down year in 2015, Nevada shattered the previous record by handling $132.5 million in 2016 and then the current record of $138.48 million last year.
This has all come about as mentioned at the top of this story by a “Perfect Storm” of events. I alluded to New Jersey’s case before the Supreme Court as well as the ever-increasing amount of media coverage of sports betting and current matchup and the overall healthy of the economy, but it also warrants mentioning that social media has also been a big part of increasing the popularity of sports betting as well as the 2015 explosion of daily fantasy sports and the league’s acceptance of that form of gambling. While Draft Kings and Fan Duel tried to distance themselves from the gambling label (to try and avoid being regulated themselves), it was clear to everyone that it was gambling, yet it was a seemingly less-dangerous “gateway drug” if you will for the sports leagues to see that they could co-exist with gambling and see it more as a great way for their fans to be more engaged with the games they love.
The whole relationship between the leagues and Las Vegas has also improved dramatically with NBA commissioner Adam Silver taking the lead in being open to the inevitability of legalized sports betting (or at least being the first to acknowledge that it’s taking place on a large scale, so he might as well embrace it). Las Vegas then was able to land an NHL expansion franchise, which is off to a rousing start with the Vegas Golden Knights being the best in the West so far this season, and then the big shocker of the Oakland Raiders being approved by NFL ownership to relocate here in Sin City in a brand, spanking-new $2 billion stadium in 2020 (but I gotta point out a major marketing blunder by the NFL in the fact it’s already awarded Super Bowl LV to Tampa in 2021; it would have made a lot more sense for Super Bowl LV to be in LV).
But all nit-picking aside, this is all part of what has brought us to, what I believe, will be seen as a watershed weekend with the NFL’s marquee game on display and the gambling aspect of what happens before, during and after the game being openly discussed more than it ever has been before with all the regular betting and prop results.
We won’t know for sure until Monday if the state again breaks its Super Bowl handle record, but I’m betting on it!