LAS VEGAS—At the South Point sportsbook Thursday afternoon, three women wearing rubber gloves busily sprayed blue-vinyl booths, shiny golden railings and granite countertops with big plastic bottles of a disinfectant solution.
The global coronavirus pandemic had Las Vegas in its grips.
On a day when every book in town typically would be crammed with tourists and residents, eager to watch, and wager on, a nonstop flow of men’s college basketball conference tournaments, those custodians nearly outnumbered customers.
Instead, a few were occupied solely by golfers in Florida whose event would be canceled later that night. Three other large screens were tuned to the constantly breaking news of other games, events and seasons that had been suspended or otherwise canceled.
On the book’s narrow digital scroll, above empty betting stalls, college basketball games that would not be played — #765 CS Fullerton . . . 153.5 . . . #766 CS Northridge . . . -3 . . . #779 Utah Valley — moved left to right, taunting the occasional spectator.
Only Rod Serling’s voice-over was missing from the scene.
South Point oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo, as he alighted from a satellite-radio stint in the nearby glass-encased Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSiN) fishbowl helmed by Brent Musburger, likened this to post-9/11 alarm and anxiety.
“The city and industry will bounce back, but when?” Magliulo said. “You just don’t know.”
When host Ron Flatter invited me to join him for his show, we were about to scale three steps into the fishbowl when a crazed-looking, wild-haired patron stopped us and pointed at a VSiN logo. “The Virus Safety Information Network!” he howled, giggling as he dashed away.
For seasoned veterans, the conference tourneys typically serve as a tasty springboard to the zaniness of the following week’s NCAA Tournament, a roundball extravaganza that rivals the prelude to any Super Bowl.
Instead, March Sadness.
The day’s events left Kenny White, a second-generation sports bettor, veteran Vegas oddsmaker and executive in charge of data integrity for the Don Best odds service, in a fog. “Still in shock,” he wrote in a text message. “No idea what to say.”
Restaurants and shows in the Vegas Valley had been feeling the revenue fallout for weeks. On Thursday, the hub of the nation’s legalized sports-betting industry, now in 20 states, got smacked in its solar plexus, if not soul.
In March 2019, Nevada’s books raked in $498.7 million of basketball business, with $349M in action, or handle, coming from the NCAA Tournament. Their winnings, or hold, were $36.5 million, according to the state’s Gaming Control Board.
That sliver of a profit margin is part of an annual bottom line that goes far in compensating employees and keeping the lights on.
Instead, managers went into the weekend determining whom to lay off, however temporarily. An employee at Barley’s, a mom-and-pop book known for its convenience and friendly staff, said it would shutter indefinitely.
Jay Kornegay, the vice president of race and sports at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, wrote in a text message that taking measures to ensure the safety and welfare of “our guests and team members” is the company’s priority.
Future wagers and game bets on conference tournaments, and the NCAAs, have been, and will be, refunded. NHL and NBA futures remain live since those seasons only have been suspended. The start of Major League Baseball figures to be delayed at least a few weeks.
“It is unfortunate we’re not going to host March Madness, one of our biggest events of the year,” Kornegay wrote. “Hoping for better times soon.”
Saturday’s UFC card, to be staged with no spectators in Brazil, was one of just a few remaining events — along with soccer matches in Mexico, Russia and Turkey — for Las Vegas punters. Company mouthpiece Dana White proclaimed that the UFC would fill an invaluable void for sports fans.
The South Point is a Vegas anomaly, since owner Michael Gaughan took control of the property in 2006 and separated its sportsbook from its horse-racing operations. Thursday, the horse section was maybe half-full, business as usual.
Many tracks, like Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which hosts the Grade II Rebel Stakes on Saturday, will forge on with no spectators. At Green Valley Ranch, Gary Mills, 71, sat in one of two sections of cubicles before two large screens displaying races from eight tracks.
A Milwaukee native who lived in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife for two years before moving to Las Vegas in 2016, Mills expressed concern about further trickle-down damage if next month’s NFL draft, a three-day event expected to draw more than half a million fans, is taken away from Las Vegas.
League officials have said they are monitoring the fluid situation.
Mills also wondered about the Kentucky Derby in early May. “Will they run the Derby without fans?” he said. “That’s more than 100,000 people.”
Fellow equine enthusiast Chuck Williams did not flinch at the prospect of spectator-less races.
“I don’t think it would matter to the horses at all,” said the 70-year-old native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with a straight face. “There is so much money in 3-year-old racing that leads to the Derby . . . remember, after 9/11, horse racing lost maybe two or three days before it was back.”
Not far from Mills, Lem Hoshino reviewed past performances on some of the day’s track forms. He shook his head about the NCAAs. He had put himself into a golden position that, he reckoned, last came along 15 years ago.
Virginia won last year’s basketball tournament and opened this season at about 7-1 odds to repeat. However, tough stretches and bad breaks had bumped those odds to 80-1.
A 55-year-old native of Maui who has been in Las Vegas since 2002, Hoshino put money on the Cavaliers at 80-1, then 70-1, then 65-1, to capitalize on hedging opportunities against those tickets, to guarantee profits.
With an improving Virginia as a favorite, he’d go the other way, take the points, and hope to cash those tickets on narrow victories by the Cavs, keeping those big-ticket futures alive. He had figured to net at least $15,000.
“If you’re around sports betting long enough, just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. It’s the same with horses.”
He is sympathetic about the worldwide health concerns and revealed plans to bolt to the South Pacific, where he is friends with a member of Tonga’s monarchy, if life here becomes challenging.
“I’ll go away for a couple of months,” he said. “Hang low down there.”