Welcome to the way sports books used to operate in Las Vegas

Jul 5, 2011 3:07 AM

Phil Ruffin has always been a maverick owner, whether previously at the Frontier or now at Treasure Island. So welcome to the way sports books used to operate in Las Vegas – one operation under Gaming Control with liberty and justice for all.

"Working for Phil Ruffin, you couldn’t ask for a nicer boss," said Tony Nevill, race and sports director at TI and previously at the Frontier. "He’s interested in race and sports and big in the hotel side of the industry. We’re about comfortable rooms for people to put their heads down at night."

On a playing field where corporate giants like MGM, Caesars Entertainment, Cantor Fitzgerald and William Hill believe in strength in numbers, Ruffin and TI have been down that road and chose to go it alone for now as an independent.

"Previously MGM had total control over the TI race and sports book," said Nevill, whose Arkansas roots add to the book’s charm and college stadium look. "Once we took over and severed ties we were able to make our own lines and come up with new ideas we hope will bring people into TI."

One way is a bold venture planned for late January for a championship horse racing handicapping contest the week before the 2012 Super Bowl.

Assuming, of course, the NFL lockout ends.

"Mr. Ruffin was awarded the National Horse Racing Handicappers Association (NHRA) championship, which has been in several locations in the past," Nevill said. "We will be giving away $1 million to the top handicapper for thoroughbred horse racing, which is one of Phil’s favorite pastimes."

Details and logistics for the big event are scheduled to be announced at the end of the summer, but Nevill did say there would be several tournaments at TI that would allow locals and out-of-towners entry to the Million Dollar Challenge.

"The Challenge is something we are extremely excited about and it’s part of our plan to build up our clientele," Nevill said. "When we took over the business from MGM, we experienced brand allegiance that set us back. A lot of folks had MGM players cards."

So Treasure Island took one step backward in order to take two steps forward.

"A lot of our players come from the Los Angeles area," Nevill said. "I think it will be about two to five years before we get to where we want to be, but you are seeing change. We are building a new Starbucks on the Las Vegas Strip, bringing a Señor Frogs on property. Gilley’s is a huge attraction here. There’s a Ben and Jerry’s on property. Kahunaville is a continuous party beginning every evening at six and going until after midnight."

While in an ideal location on the Strip next to Mirage and across from Venetian and Palazzo, the TI desires to be "everyman’s casino resort."

"We want all of the customers inside and outside of Las Vegas to be comfortable if they are wearing cowboy boots, tennis shoes or a pair of Gucci’s," Nevill said. "The reason the TI appeals to locals is our fair prices, easy access by the Interstate and valet parking so easy it puts you literally in the center of the casino area."

The independence of being its own lines maker especially appealed to Chris Chavez, who joined Nevill at TI from day one two years ago after a lengthy stint at Las Vegas Sports Consultants.

"Being an independent book challenges us to be on top of our numbers," said Chavez, a race and sports supervisor. "Our players can come to TI and see a number that isn’t generic and found in eight to 10 locations."

Chavez believes the race and sports betting industry has changed since the days when he worked at LVSC under Roxy Roxborough back in the late 1990’s.

"Tourist traffic has gone down a lot the last couple of years," Chavez said. "But, I am pretty optimistic it will pick back up. I like that we are one of the few stand alone books in this town. Back in the 1980s everyone had its own race and sports book."

With independence has come fun. Seeing ticket writers and technicians smiling is a welcome sight in these challenging economic times.

"There is a great feel to our room," Nevill said. "It’s not especially big, but really a perfect size. It’s like being in your living room with TV’s angled to give players an up close view and a seating area that’s both comfortable and practical. We really enjoy what we do here and I believe in being accessible to everyone."

That’s the Razorback way. Soooweeet.