LAS VEGAS – With the Super Bowl behind us, the next big sports betting event starts this weekend with the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Ice hockey will get the bulk of the betting action here in the Nevada sports books, but bettors are sure to get lured into betting sports they only care about every four years such as luge, bobsledding, ice skating and speed skating to name a few.
Now, I’ve already heard from some readers here and on Twitter that they didn’t think we could bet on the Olympics in Nevada, and maybe you’re thinking that you could swear you’ve heard that, too. Well, if you've followed me for a long time, I could be to blame as I wrote about it often in my Daily Racing Form column starting when Olympics wagering was taken off the betting boards here in 2001. If you never read me in DRF, perhaps you heard me Tweeting about it being banned here every two years since joining Twitter in 2009 until it was legalized again for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
So, yes, it was truly illegal from the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City (which was unfortunate for the Nevada books with our close proximity to the host city) through the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, but now it’s my mission to re-educate everyone that it’s perfectly legal again to bet the Olympics in our sports books here.
So, why did it get banned in the first place?
It all stems from 2000-2001 when Sen. John McCain was trying to push through his Amateur Sports Integrity Act, which had the primary goal of outlawing college football and basketball betting in Nevada but the Olympics were also included in the original bill along with high school and other amateur sports.
One of McCain’s main arguments at the time was pointing out the hypocrisy of Nevada’s sports books, which didn’t allow betting on its own state schools (University of Nevada-Las Vegas and University of Nevada-Reno). “Why is it right that they take bets on kids in other states, but they don’t allow betting on their own kids?” was one of his mantras at the time.
So, it was with a bit of a thumbing of the nose that the Nevada Gaming Commission unanimously passed a regulation on Jan. 25, 2001, that our state schools were no longer off limits and that as of Feb. 7, 2001, all UNLV and Nevada-Reno games would be allowed on the betting boards.
When I talked after the meeting with NGC chairman Brian Sandoval – if that name sounds familiar, he’s been the governor of Nevada since 2011 he told me: “McCain was right. We should take bets on our schools. We’ll show that regulated sports betting is the best way to protect the integrity of the games. Senator McCain and the NCAA’s focus should be on the illegal gambling taking place on campuses.”
However, Nevada offered a concession and volunteered to take high school sports off the betting boards (it was actually unnecessary as no one was booking those games at the time anyway) and also the Olympics. Actually, betting on the Olympics was not actually outlawed by name, but instead it was covered in Nevada Gaming Regulation 22.120, which was changed to read: “No wagers may be accepted or paid by any book on any amateur non-collegiate sport or athletic event."
The anti-betting factions didn’t appreciate the gesture, which took away one of their biggest arguments and was part of the reason the Amateur Sports Integrity Act lost momentum later that spring.
It generally wasn’t considered that big of a sacrifice by the books anyway because the Olympics rarely drew major betting interest in Nevada, with the notable exceptions of the original “Dream Team” men’s basketball team in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona and the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding soap opera in the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer. Otherwise, it was a pretty easy call for the sports books to give up Olympics wagering to help save college betting.
However, times changes and by 2016, the sports books started asking the Gaming Control Board to open up more wagering options to help them be more competitive in the marketplace. You’ll note that 2016 also coincides with the books first being able to post Heisman wagering as well as the first Super Bowl MVP odds in February 2017. Lifting the ban on the Olympics, which was long overdue as it was a long time since anyone considered Olympic athletes to be "amateurs" anyway, was part of that movement.
Back to the Winter Games being held over the next two-plus weeks (a little more than a fortnight for those that remember that word from past Olympics broadcasts), the William Hill books here in Nevada have Norway as the -160 favorite for the country to win the most gold medals followed by Germany at 180, the United States at 9-2 and Canada at 12-1. No other country is below 25-1.
The “Olympic Athletes of Russia” are the -110 favorites to win the men’s hockey gold at the Westgate with Canada at 2-1 and Sweden at 7-2. Team USA is a longshot at 10-1, however, the U.S. women are the –150 favorites to win gold with Canada as a very short second-choice at -110. Finland is the only other women’s team below double digits at 5-1.
Very few Americans are favored in the events that I’ve seen posted so far at books in Vegas (note: the over/under for U.S. gold medals is 10 1/2 at William Hill), but one event where we’re expecting to hear chants of “USA, USA, USA” is in snowboarding as Shaun White is the 5-4 favorite to win the men’s half pipe and Chloe Kim is the prohibitive -500 fave in the women’s half pipe.
As stated above, the Olympics never really drew a big betting handle in the past, but it'll be interesting to see if the Olympic dark ages become a thing of the past due to today's sports betting renaissance.