Las Vegas is ready for a major league sports team, according to Las Vegas-based oddsmaker Jim Vaccaro.
The issue has been batted around for years even as leagues turned up their collective noses at the prospect of locating a team in the center of gambling action that defines Las Vegas for people elsewhere.
So is Las Vegas really ready? I asked Vaccaro, who currently hangs his hat at Michael Gaughan’s South Point.
“Absolutely,” was his one word response before he took a deep breath and began his elaboration. “We’ve had 14,000 people commit to buying season tickets for an NHL team; and hockey is, what, like a tiny piece of our business.”
The seductive scents associated with mountains of potential revenue are making a difference in Las Vegas and elsewhere, so are the evolving attitudes that have people more inclined to accept legal and regulated sports betting as a business like any other and a pastime enjoyed by millions of sports fans around the world.
Vegas and the sports betting business have traveled what feels like light years from that moment in the mid-1980s when Vaccaro was running the MGM’s first sportsbook and the crew from the executive office wandered into the book, took a look at the early morning crowd and asked Vaccaro, “What are all these people are doing?”
“It’s March Madness, it’s basketball,” Vaccaro said, like how could they not know. Now maybe they did and maybe they didn’t, but the enthusiasm for the gambling and sports betting action that came with the annual NCAA college finals had not sunk in as it did on the morning when they faced Vaccaro thirty-plus years ago.
Playing those old scenes in his head he says, “March Madness was just beginning to catch on as an event that we could market. After it was over that year they had me sit down with the marketing people.”
MGM began looking at this NCAA event as something that could be marketed to casino customers months in advance, something that was easy to do because all casino customers needed was a good excuse to visit Las Vegas.
The appeal of March Madness and Super Bowl weekend quickly spread throughout Las Vegas casinos with the result that casinos that had paid little attention to sports betting began to install the appropriate facilities on their properties.
There was another big catalyst. “Boxing had so much to do with the growth of sports betting here in Nevada,” Vaccaro says.
It was one thing after another, everything building on what had come before it. There was a time, Vaccaro remembers when only the so-called wise guys paid much attention to sportsbook operations. But that attitude took on a different shape as it became apparent sports and racebooks could be significant entertainment centers, giving visitors multiple reasons to remain close to the big TV screens.
“Mainstream America has over-run the business we get from the wise guys,” Vaccaro said.
Sports betting was getting more attention than ever. But as attention getters go, nothing was more helpful during those years when sports wagering was being introduced to a bigger slice of the American public than the Chicago Bears’ William “Refrigerator” Perry scoring a Super Bowl touchdown in 1985. The TD was the focus of a proposition bet available at some local books, including Vaccaro’s.
The news media zeroed in on Perry’s run and the result was a ton of free publicity that produced more attention.
“I’m guessing we lost maybe a million statewide on that prop but the result for us (sportsbooks) was a hundred million dollars worth of free publicity that we could never have bought.”
Feature writers and editors across the country fell for the possibilities that beckoned them whenever they came on an event of that might get attention in Las Vegas sportsbooks.
Vaccaro recalls the conversation he had with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones sometime after Jones bought the team in 1989 and fired coach Tom Landry. Vaccaro was running the Golden Nugget book for Steve Wynn then.
Jones said to Vaccaro, “How many games do you think we’re gonna win this year?” Vaccaro gave it a few moments of thought before saying that 5-1/2 seemed like a reasonable number.
Jones considered that and said he wanted to put some money on it. Vaccaro and the book took the wager and in no time at all news of it generated more phone calls from around the country, various media outlets looking for the story behind the story.
Put it all together and the bottom line was that Vegas books were getting unprecedented attention.
“Huge sums of money started coming in.”
Sometimes there was a story to go with the money. Other times the six- or seven-figure wager was just a rich guy looking for the rush that comes with a successful bet.
Sometimes, Vaccaro says, the stories materialized out of moments that seemed unlikely to produce anything other than business as usual.
Which brought Vaccaro to his recollection of the Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas fight in Japan.
Vaccaro was at The Mirage by then and had put the fight up at 27-to-1. It went as high as 42-to-1. No other book in town would touch the fight, not with the numbers like they were.
Vaccaro had the action to himself.
“If Tyson had won, it would have been business as usual, but as it turn out, I began getting phone calls at like 4:30 in the morning, The Mirage PR guy telling me I should get over to the casino because the phones were ringing off the hook from the TV news people and the media back East.
“My point again is that we did not have to spend a dime to create this event and the publicity we got kept us in front of people.”
The volume of business in Nevada books continues growing as the imaginative minds behind them bend technology to their needs.
The future, Vaccaro says, will certainly involve more technology such as kiosks and the mobile apps. They mean the need to stand in a long line at any casino’s book will diminish.
It is the limitations imposed by outdated laws that are acting as a brake on revenue generating possibilities.
“We did $130 million in Nevada books on this year’s Super Bowl,” he said, letting that sink in, adding after a moment, “That’s maybe one percent of what the rest of the world did. And 70 percent of the people betting off-shore are Americans.”
That’s another way of saying there’s still a lot of room for growth.
Phil Hevener has been writing about the Nevada gaming business for more than 30 years. Email: .