Handle high for sportsbooks but profits down

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If you happened to witness any of the first four days of March Madness this past weekend at a Las Vegas sportsbook, you may have been a part of some history as it was probably the busiest the books have ever been.

Ticket counts and handle were higher than ever for the tournament to the point where even the most seasoned veteran bookmakers couldn’t believe their eyes.

“It was unbelievably busy,” said MGM Resorts sportsbook hub manager Jeff Stoneback. “Every year you think it can’t be any busier, but it was a sight I’ve never seen in my 30 years in the business. The crowds were incredible, and our action reflected the growth with ticket counts being up 30 percent on Wednesday before the tournament and then up 20 percent over the same Thursday through Sunday last year. We had lines backed up all the way past California Pizza Kitchen (inside Mirage) at 9 a.m. with only one game starting within the hour on Saturday.”

The busy Saturday morning was a continuation from what happened Friday night, when bettors did extremely well on the late results with Notre Dame covering -3 against Michigan and Northern Iowa winning outright as a 4.5-point underdog against Texas.

“We ran out of money Friday night,” said Stoneback regarding the non-stop payouts. “We had to get two cash fills from the cage, so when Saturday morning came around, bettors were really gung ho about the upcoming games.”

The most surprising thing about the MGM books having so much additional action is they didn’t offer in-progress wagering or phone wagering like many of the other books in town, who also said handle was higher than 2015.

“Handle way up, win down,” said William Hill’s bookmaking director Nick Bogdanovich. “The first day was good, but the other three were a battle.”

It was the same story at Station Casinos’ 19 books across the city.

“Handle was up slightly, but win was definitely down,” said Station’s sportsbook director Jason McCormick. “Thursday was great, but Friday evening was a nightmare, erasing more than what was gained from afternoon profits. Saturday was a nothing day and Sunday was decent just because of St. Joseph’s covering.”

St. Joseph’s was getting +6.5 against No. 1 seed Oregon and managed to cover in a 69-64 loss. The reason it was such a massive decision for the books around town was just because it was the final game posted of the weekend and live parlays from the other 15 Saturday and Sunday games were all waiting for that result.

An Oregon cover would have been a crushing blow, and bettors and books alike had a major nail-biting session throughout the second-half of that one.

“We won the big games during the day, but lost all the late decisions each night until Wisconsin and St. Joe’s covered on Sunday night,” said CG Technology VP of risk management Jason Simbal.

Wisconsin won a 66-63 thriller as 4.5-point underdogs over No. 2 seeded Xavier.

“St. Joe’s was a big swing for us,” said Stoneback, “but Wisconsin earlier was even bigger.”

The final tally against the spread over the four days had the favorites going 25-23 with 11 underdogs winning outright and the OVER going 26-19-1. Those are ideal numbers for the books to do well, which they did, just not as large as they would have liked and a little less than last year.

Last Man Standing

To show how difficult picking winners against the spread is when favorites go 25-23, all you need to do is look at the results from Station Casinos “Last Man Standing” elimination contest where after four days – pick one winner a day throughout tournament – only 99 of the 2,572 entries were still alive. The last person remaining will pocket a chunky $52,075 prize.

Spartan Madness

Those who had the idea a No. 15 seed could knock off one of the most popular teams of the tournament were rewarded when Middle Tennessee beat Michigan State outright as an 18-point underdog, which paid out 20-to-1 on the moneyline. William Hill books had 84% of the pointspread tickets and 81% of the total pointspread dollars wagered on the game taking Michigan State. William Hill was also offering the prop “Will A 15-seed win a game?” The YES was +240, NO at -280.

“Great game for the house. This is why the tournament is so great. We never know what to expect,” said Bogdanovich.

The Spartans were also the most wagered team in odds to win the Tournament. Scratch that, they’re still the most wagered team at a few books.

“Even after being eliminated on Friday, as of Monday morning after two full days of busy crowds and way more volume on futures, we still have more tickets written on Michigan State than anyone else,” Stoneback said. “Right now our biggest risk is on Syracuse (30/1) and then Gonzaga (30/1).”

Those two will meet Friday in the Sweet 16 with Gonzaga a 4-point favorite.

The four days of action that begins on Thursday won’t be nearly as busy for the books as last weekend and will give all the ticket writers, bookmakers and directors a chance to take a deep breath. A big round of applause – remember, tips appreciated too – for each and every one of the sportsbook crews around town that put on perhaps the best weekend of Madness Las Vegas has ever seen.

Sweet 16 selections:

Maryland +7 vs. Kansas

Miami-Fla +4.5 vs. Villanova

Indiana +6 vs. North Carolina

Wisconsin +1 vs. Notre Dame

Iowa State +5.5 vs. Virginia

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Twitter: @MicahRoberts7 Email: [email protected].

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