How sweet it is!

Mar 25, 2003 6:07 AM

Sports book directors reported huge crowds and heavy betting action in the opening rounds of NCAA basketball tournament last weekend.

"We had the biggest crowds I’d ever seen in the history of this tournament," said Johnny Avello, race and sports director of Bally’s and Paris Las Vegas. "Both of our sports books were packed wall-to-wall, and the 1,200-seat Paris Showroom had standing-room-only both days."

Most casinos up and down the Strip report similar action.

Nearly every hotel was filled to or near capacity for the weekend, according to Scott ­­Ghertner, director of sports and promotions for MGM Mirage properties.

So-called locals casinos also enjoyed heavy action as Southern Nevada broke away from Iraq war coverage for some R&R in their favorite casino.

"While the crowds weren’t festive by any stretch, you could tell they wanted to be here, in the sports book and at the machines, just to get away from the blanket, and sometimes depressing, war coverage," said a supervisor at one of the Coast casinos.

There were also enthusiastic crowd at Station properties, where bettors flooded in to play the NCAA tournament parlay cards, which weren’t available in all the town’s sports books.

The Rampart and Cannery casinos, aided by a free Sweet 16 contest, also attracted standing-room-only crowds.

The contest, which required picking all Sweet 16 teams, had a couple players pick 14 (worth $500 each), plus numerous 13 and 12-team winners. But no one could predict all 16 or even 15 teams.

"We had a ton of people throughout the tournament," said Eric St. Claire, sports director for both properties. "The house had a great handle, and everyone was happy on both sides of the counter."

The result of such a huge turnout could be the biggest betting event of the year. Traditionally, the Super Bowl holds that honor, but as off-shore shops siphon off bets, the NCAA tournament may be in a position to top the Super Bowl this year.

About $70 million was bet on the Super Bowl earlier this year. While casinos don’t release similar statistics for the tournament, sports bookies acknowledge that by the time the tourney ends in April, Vegas casinos will probably have handled amounts in excess of $70 million.

Most of those bets were placed during the opening rounds, when there are so many more teams and games from which to choose, casino executives said.

"Interest actually dies down as the tournament progresses," said Robert Walker, sports director at the Mirage, "because you have fewer teams and fewer fans involved."

Walker added that the fever that grips bettors during the NCAA tournament is a little different than the one that infects Super Bowl bettors.

"The crowds are totally different," Walker said. "For the Super Bowl, you get your mega-casino players. For this, you get mostly young men with a couple of hundred dollars who want to bet all the games."

No matter who bets, the sports book directors around town are expecting similar action in the later rounds of the tournament.

"Even though we have clear cut favorites in Kentucky and Arizona to win it all, there are plenty of opportunities to ring up big scores betting futures on teams like Texas (8-1), Pittsburgh (12-1) and last year’s champ, Maryland (18-1)," said the sports supervisor at a locals-oriented casino. "Even some of the ”˜longshots’ could be worth a look — Marquette (40-1), Connecticut (20-1), Michigan State (25-1) and even Butler at 75-1 all have a shot. Heck, anything can happen in a tournament like this."