- The Washington Times
Monday, March 16, 2020

In this year’s version of March Madness, wither the bookie?

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament was supposed to start this week, the biggest annual gambling event in the U.S. with office workers everywhere scrambling to fill out their brackets and gamblers placing bets on individual games, the tournament champion and the winner of the most outstanding player award.

Instead, the COVID-19 outbreak forced the cancellation of the tournament as well as the suspension of the NBA, Major League Baseball, NHL, PGA and other sports leagues, leaving America’s sportsbooks scrambling.

Then casinos everywhere started closing. For once, the people who coin the gambling money were unlucky.

That means the jobs of more than 100,000 people in the Las Vegas gambling industry are at risk, according to figures from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“As you can imagine, our business levels have declined,” said Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of racing and sports at Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino. “March Madness is kind of an unusual event in that there are more people betting at the beginning of it than the end.”

When Mr. Kornegay assessed the situation Sunday afternoon, the Westgate’s sportsbook, considered one of the best such spots in Vegas, was still open, with its “biggest in Vegas” 30,000-square-foot screen still showing sports.

“Around the world, there are still a few professional leagues playing, and there was a UFC event in Brazil,” he said.

The long-term picture for the sportsbook industry grew darker Monday when Major League Baseball announced it would postpone Opening Day until sometime in May. It’s not clear whether major events such as the Masters, which have been postponed indefinitely, will be played at all this year.

MGM Resorts International announced Friday that several employees tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus. The company shut down operations at all nine of its Las Vegas properties, including its flagship Bellagio, the casino with the famous water fountain display that many services rate as the most profitable in Las Vegas.

In a letter to employees, MGM Resorts President and Chief Operating Officer Bill Hornbuckle made the grim announcement that furloughs and layoffs were probable.

“We are working diligently to minimize the impact on our employees through furloughs and layoffs which will begin next week,” the letter read. “We deeply regret the hardship it will place on these individuals and their families.”

What is happening to the sportsbooks and MGM is evident elsewhere. Caeser’s Entertainment, owner of the famous sportsbook in the Caesars Palace casino, began laying off people Sunday, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.

Even before the outbreak ground the casinos to a halt, the bookies’ bottom lines were buffeted by the lack of basketball, hockey and other major sports in the U.S.

The NCAA basketball tournament is considered the biggest annual gambling event in the U.S. With office pools, casino sportsbooks, online gambling and bets made on individual games, no one knows for sure how much money is put on the table during the tournament. But everyone knows it’s a pile.

In 2019, the American Gaming Association estimated that some 47 million Americans would wager $8.5 billion during the tournament. A huge chunk of that is off the books and illegal, but hundreds of millions of dollars are put on the line in Vegas.

Now that the Supreme Court has legalized sports betting nationwide, the legal action once offered exclusively in Las Vegas is being spread across the country, but Vegas still handles north of $350 million on the NCAA Tournament alone, according to reports.

That puts the tournament right behind the Super Bowl in terms of legal gambling.

“There is so much action going on from the first tip with four consecutive games all through the day,” said Jack Jones, a college hoops analyst at Betfirm.com. “The opening two days of the tournament are a gambler’s paradise.”

Now, most bets are being refunded.

“All race and sports books will refund wagers on any canceled games,” said a spokesman for Station Casinos, proprietors of Las Vegas’ Red Rock Resort and others. “Wagers placed on canceled games on the STN Sports mobile app will be automatically refunded. All Station Casinos college basketball ‘Futures’ wagers may now be refunded at the sports book; STN Sports mobile app College Basketball “Futures” wagers have now been refunded to guest accounts.”

Grim as it may be for the house, the sports shutdown also means a lot of people will save money they would have lost.

The NCAA Tournament is so difficult to predict, so famous for its upsets, that in 2014, Quicken Loans, the home mortgage giant, and legendary investor Warren Buffett offered $1 billion to anyone who filled out a perfect bracket. Nobody won.

Since then, Mr. Buffett has offered employees of his Berkshire-Hathaway empire $1 million a year for life if they picked all 16 teams that advanced to the tournament’s third round correctly — a pot he sweetened to $2 million in 2018 if any team from his home state of Nebraska won the crown. He wrote no checks.

Chances are good that no one would have had anything close to a perfect bracket this year, with CBS Sports, which broadcasts the Final Four, announcing that Dayton beat Gonzaga in its imaginary simulcast of the tournament.

Even if the sportsbooks reopened tomorrow, the dearth of events would still pose a problem.

“So, what sports are left for betting action?” asked the online gambling site PlayUSA.com. “Not much, when you consider the majority of international soccer leagues have also halted play. At the top, the UCF continues to put on fights, while lower-tier soccer leagues also remain live.”

Some places, such as DraftKings, are offering parlays on the NFL draft, which league Commissioner Roger Goodell has said will take place next month as scheduled, though the public events in Las Vegas are canceled.

In the midst of this sporting wasteland, Mr. Korneguy said, there is one remaining beacon for players.

“We’ve still got a full slate of horse racing.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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