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Vegas books take gut punch from March Madness cancellation

Mar 12, 2020 5:12 PM

The impact of the NCAA’s decision Thursday to cancel its men’s basketball tournament due to the coronavirus outbreak was felt in Las Vegas and beyond.

Nevada, one of 16 states to have active legalized sports betting, took a huge hit with the cancellation of March Madness. And it wasn’t just in the sportsbooks. Restaurants, casinos and hotels were all negatively impacted and continue to do so as travel restrictions are placed and visitors are increasingly reluctant to get on a plane and fly to Las Vegas.

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“It’s been insane,” said Jay Kornegay, the vice president of Race and Sports at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook. “We haven’t had time to fully assess everything. Things seem to be popping up every hour.”

And it wasn’t just the NCAA Tournament that sent the books into scramble mode. The NBA and NHL both suspended their current seasons. Major League Baseball canceled the remainder of spring training and pushed back the start of its regular season on March 26 by two weeks.

Even the XFL, which was struggling to gain a foothold, both on the field as well in the books, has opted out.

“It’s something you really don’t think about,” Kornegay said. “We’ve seen labor disputes and individual leagues cancel their seasons before. But no one could have predicted 95 percent of sports being canceled. Nobody saw that coming.”

Chris Andrews, who is the sportsbook director at the South Point, certainly didn’t. 

“What can we do? Everything’s canceled,” he said. 

Just about every property that took future book action on the NCAA Tournament as well as all the canceled conference tournaments, are offering full refunds for all wagers. For those holding future book bets on the NBA championship, the Stanley Cup, season win totals and other future bets for the NBA and NHL, those bets remain in play and will not be refunded, yet.

“Until we get a final decision from the NBA and the NHL on their seasons, hold on to your tickets,” Andrews advised customers who bet at the South Point or its sister property,  the Rampart in Summerlin.

Kornegay said all NBA and NHL future book wagers remain alive. All NCAA bets are being refunded.

Both the Westgate and South Point are traditionally huge gathering places for March Madness, attracting thousands of basketball fans. Kornegay said the impact of not having the NCAA Tournament will have a major ripple effect through the casino and beyond.

“It hurts everything,” he said. It’s not just the sports world. It’s everybody.

“I’ve got friends who are bankers. I’ve got friends who own liquor stores. I’ve got friends who own restaurants. They’re all affected by what is happening.”

So are Kornegay‘s and Andrews’ staffs. Mike Lawton, an analyst for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, told covers.com  that not being able to book the NCAA Tournament could cost the books close to half a billion dollars in handle and nearly $37 million in winnings based on 2019’s figures. Andrews said he may have to juggle his writers’ and supervisors’ schedules because there’s so little to do at the moment.

It was the same everywhere around town. Station Casinos had to cancel its Last Man Standing contest. The Rampart had several special promotions tied into March Madness. Circa Sports had a big event planed in the conjunction with the D Las Vegas at the Downtown Las Vegas Event Center.

And on and on it goes. VIP seating had been purchased at various Strip casinos to watch the games. Food specials had been advertised. And with the NBA and NHL on hiatus, even that’s not an option.

But both Andrews and Kornegay remained optimistic on what was a dark day for their industry.

“It’s a huge event for us,” Andrews said. “But in the grand scheme of things, there are bigger issues.”

Kornegay said: “We’ll get through this. We got through 9/11. It may take some time because of the rippling effect (the coronavirus) is having throughout the entire country. But we’ll be O.K. eventually.”