Some clouds and doubts about the collegiate and professional football seasons began dissipating over last weekend as Las Vegas began emerging from the coronavirus hiatus.
Brett Siedlecki, who partners with Kelly Stewart at Kelly in Vegas Proxy, witnessed first-hand how football, the country’s undisputed sporting king, and the city’s prestigious contests could infuse sportsbooks with needed business and enthusiasm.
“I was pleasantly surprised to see people eager to get back into the contest spirit,” said Siedlecki, having inked several clients to the Circa Million Football Contest. “We’ve seen an influx of people inquiring about and booking appointments for July and August. A lot of customers that we thought we had lost due to the shutdown have already re-scheduled (appointments).”
However, Westgate SuperBook vice president Jay Kornegay has talked with several skeptics.
“If the NFL were to announce it is officially having a season, that would certainly give us a pick-up,” he says. “No one knows if we’re going to have a season, so it makes sense that that would have an impact on the number of entries we see during this time.”
Kornegay spoke those words Sunday. Monday, the league and its players’ union sent full re-booting protocols to its teams.
Meanwhile, downtown at the Golden Gate and the D Las Vegas, owner Derek Stevens has been busy in his pigskin laboratory, creating an extra week in the NFL schedule that did not previously exist.
For his new Circa Survivor NFL contest, he made the three Thanksgiving games a week unto themselves, separate from the subsequent Sunday and Monday night games.
On Thursday, Nov. 26, those tilts are Houston at Detroit, Washington at Dallas and Baltimore at Pittsburgh. That’s Week 12. The games three and four days later represent Week 13 on the Circa-dian NFL calendar. The Survivor victor is guaranteed $1 million. Finish 18-0, collect a $1 million bonus.
Traditional survivor or last-man-standing contests require participants to pick one team to win outright, each week, no pointspreads. If it wins, that player advances to the next week. A team can be selected only once.
Thus, at least one of those six Thanksgiving teams must be available — and, of course, it must win — to remain alive at Circa. If someone reaches Turkey Day having used every team from those three games, no soup for you.
“You will be eliminated,” says Circa Sports operations manager Jeffrey Benson. “It’s a cool wrinkle that Derek came up with, a different kind of game-theory element. You have to think about it — do I want to save all six (Thursday) teams, or just two or three?”
The Golden Nugget began selling Ultimate Football Challenge entries on March 3, The D and Golden Gate opened Circa Survivor and Circa Million entries on March 6. On March 18, on the very eve of the start of the NCAA basketball tournament, gubernatorial orders closed the city. The Strip had last bolted its doors, for less than 24 hours, on Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, to observe President John F. Kennedy’s funeral.
Circa, which returns 100 percent of its entry fees to patrons in prize money, is in a precarious position. At $1,000 a pop, if it doesn’t attract 1,000 entries in either of its contests it loses money. In its début a year ago, the Circa Million had 1,875 entries.
It had sold only double-digit entries, but that picked up over the weekend and should heat up next month.
“Obviously, leading up to the first weekend in September, we’ve got our work cut out for us,” says Benson, who parroted Kornegay’s sentiments that more clarity on the NFL and college football seasons will be a boon.
The Ultimate Football Challenge entails picking seven weekly games from the college or pro ranks, against the spread. It costs $1,000 per entry, with an industry-standard maximum of three per person, and the Nugget rewards top-20 finishers.
For their contests to be official, 10 weeks must be played at the Westgate, 12 at Circa. The Nugget rules state 17 weeks, but an insider expects that to be amended.
At Station Casinos, its Last Man Standing pro and college contests have been popular for 17 years, due to a $25 entry fee and a fifth freebie with four purchases. Its NFL victor took home $150,000 last season, college got $100,000 — win both, collect another $750,000. Registration typically begins Aug. 1, but a source expressed some uncertainty about the 2020 campaign.
Stewart and Siedlecki are bullish about the full NFL schedule being played. In Nevada, such contest entries must be submitted in-person, so proxy agencies are vital for out-of-towners. They generally start at $199 and information on their services can be found at their website: kellyinvegas.com.
“By far our busiest time of the year,” Stewart says of mid-July to the season kickoff. “It’s a mad dash to get into the Vegas-based contests. We still expect to have a full slate of clients. These contests are such a big part of the NFL season for so many people.”
Poor business practices by other entities inspired Stewart and Siedlecki to establish a reassurance guarantee — should either err in any way in submitting a client’s picks, he or she will be refunded proxy fees and registration costs.
“We felt we owed this to clients who put their trust in us,” says Siedlecki. He and Stewart used the unexpected downtime to upgrade their website and submission process, and add some customer perks to their business model.
At the Westgate SuperBook, whose SuperContest has set the standard since 1988, construction refurbishments have pushed the property’s re-opening to June 18. It got the jump on its competition, though, when it started selling SuperContest ($1,500) and winner-take-all SuperContest Gold ($5,000) entries Jan. 13. For the first time, it signed contestants, (about 100) for an upcoming season before the current one had been capped by a Super Bowl.
“Obviously, we never saw (the coronavirus pandemic) coming,” Kornegay said. “Our main objective, at that point, was to capture the Super Bowl crowd. The previous year, we had captured the March Madness crowd.”
This year, nobody got to use the NCAA Tournament or Memorial Day weekend as football-contest springboards. Kornegay estimated a loss of 200 sign-ups that, hopefully, they’ll recapture.
In each of the past 10 seasons the SuperContest grew in popularity, from 328 contestants (and a $196,800 first prize) in 2009 to last year’s record 3,328 entries and a $1.47 million top prize. Kornegay does not expect that trend to continue.
“We’re living in different times,” he said. “In today’s environment, it makes sense that you’ll see some decline (in contest participation). We’re looking at some different promotions, but nothing is confirmed yet.”
Kornegay paused to further consider the city’s historic 11-week dark period.
“The world changed,” he said.