40 Years As A Bookmaker: Las Vegas Legend Jimmy Vaccaro On The Changing State Of Sports Betting

South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro goes deep on the expansion of regulated sports gambling and what it means for Las Vegas.
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If you have a question about sports betting — the business, the history, the percentages — Jimmy Vaccaro has the answer.

The Trafford, Pennsylvania native moved to Las Vegas in 1975 and got a job as a blackjack dealer at the Royal Inn, and two years later he opened the sports book there under the direction of Michael Gaughan. Vaccaro has since run the books at Barbary Coast, MGM, Golden Nugget, The Mirage, and Atlantis in the Bahamas, before landing in his current spot at South Point, where he’s been the oddsmaker for the past five years. Vaccaro is also the senior linemaker for VsiN (Vegas Stats & Information Network).

Still going strong in his 70s — and refreshed after a month-long summer vacation in Trafford — Vaccaro spoke to USBets.com this week about the expansion of regulated sports gambling, what it means for Vegas, and the challenges of being a bookmaker.

New competition, new opportunity

USBets: What changes are you seeing in the industry since the Supreme Court reversed PASPA and Nevada started having some company in legal sports betting in the U.S.?

Jimmy Vaccaro: What’s changed is very simple. You’re going to get every state who wants to be involved in this off and running, and there’s a lot of firecrackers under a lot of asses already. We just did some talking with some people from Minnesota, who are trying to find out what it really takes and what booking sports is really like. This is an exciting time, because something that someone like me’s been rooting for his entire life is coming to fruition.

So these people in Minnesota and elsewhere, they’re reaching out because they’re looking into operating a sports book if and when legislation is passed in their state?

JV: Right. Now, will these new operators be perfect in the first few years? No, a lot of potholes. But at least they’re reaching out to talk to somebody.

What’s the most common mistake, or the biggest mistake, that a new bookmaker will make when he’s first getting started?

JV: Well, I’m not sure if this answers your question, but 30 years ago, when you were opening up a race and sports book, you would contact someone like me first. In today’s world, the first people you should contact are compliance people and attorneys because it’s a different world out there. You need those people on board early on to make sure you’re not doing anything that somewhere down the line will bite you in the behind. Booking the stuff will come. That’s all natural. Then you go after people like me and [William Hill’s] Nicky Bogdanovich and so on. And it’s a challenge. There’s not a lot of room, as far as percentage is concerned, when you’re dealing with booking sports. So you must be aware of that going in.

Does the fact that sports betting is now legal in other states hurt business in Las Vegas at all?

JV: Well, there’s more choices, so yeah, it’ll hurt a little bit. But the other side of the coin is very simple. This is just a guess from my perspective, we haven’t made any deals with anybody, but this opens up a lot of opportunities for people who somewhere down the line want to do business with us. If we grab what we consider some good, choice joints, we’ll make more in the long run by being awarded some race and sports books in some other jurisdictions. But the bottom line is, you do the right thing by the book that you’re in, and everything else, let it fall where it is. If your business model is sound and you treat the people like you think they should fairly be treated, you’re gonna get your share of business. So will there be less people? I guess there might be a few less on the March Madness weekend. If you live in Pennsylvania, why would you come out to Las Vegas if you could go bet in New Jersey? But I think that we’ll be okay. And I believe that the good outfits will end up running a few joints in other parts of the country.

Gridiron green

What percentage of your handle is NFL these days? Some people have claimed the popularity of the NFL is slipping — is there any evidence of that based on the handle?

JV: Zero evidence of that. It goes up every year. And what has really, really taken a giant step forward in the past five years is college football. There was a time in the ’80s when for every dollar we would write on the college games, we’d write three on the NFL. It’s almost dead-ass even now, as far as money bet on Saturday and money bet on Sunday. Now let’s call it like it is: On Saturday there’s a lot more games, and then Sunday it’s the same 14 or so games it’s always been. We are at about the $5 billion mark for the state handle, which is a good sign because that has been going up every year. Not crazy, but just good enough. And our contests have gone up, our phone apps have gone through the roof. It’s all growing.

You win some, you lose some

Let’s talk a little personal bookmaking history. What event gave you your biggest win ever as a bookmaker?

JV: I think it was one of the Dallas-Buffalo Super Bowls, where it came down almost to the last play if they’d have scored, I think. You know what? I forget. There’s been a lot. But I know the biggest loss I had in one day was $1.4 million, which is pretty significant since obviously we don’t deal with the world, we only deal with the state of Nevada. And I believe my biggest win was $1.7 million, that was another Super Bowl. I can’t remember which one. A million dollars here, a million dollars there, what’s the difference?

The $1.4 million loss, do you recall what game that was?

JV: That was actually a couple games, the two playoff games. I think it was Buffalo beat the Raiders like 50-3 in that first game in the morning [Buffalo beat Oakland 51-3 in the AFC Championship on January 20, 1990], and then the second game, I think the 49ers were playing somebody [the New York Giants defeated San Francisco 15-13 that day]. But we did lose both games, and it was nonstop — Buffalo and over in the first game, that I do remember, because we were in bad shape no matter what happened the second game. And then we lost the second game also. For two games, more than a million dollars, that’s pretty significant.

I know you’ve mentioned in the past that the Larry Holmes-Muhammad Ali boxing match was a big win. Is that one of your biggest, in terms of sports outside of football?

JV: Yes. Because for every ticket we wrote on Larry Holmes, we wrote ten on Muhammad Ali. And the general public were obviously just saying, their guy is ready, their guy is ready. I believe — now this is a guess, too, because we’re talking 1980 — but I want to say we opened Holmes a $3 favorite, and we were as low as $1.40. We were just overpowered by tickets and tickets and tickets on Ali. It was a very, very big win for us. And not even a sweat. That’s how bad Ali looked.

When was the last time you posted a line and discovered very quickly you’d messed up?

JV: About 10 minutes ago. It happens every day. If a bookmaker tells you he’s a genius, tell him to get lost. It’s just a fallacy. To say that we know what the hell’s going on with everything, it doesn’t work that way. Now, the errors have been a lot less in the past 20 years, as opposed to 30 years ago, when maybe there was an injury you didn’t know about. But we still make mistakes all the time.

You’re 72 years old. Do you expect to retire anytime soon, or just keep working until you can’t do it anymore?

JV: I was a young whippersnapper when I came to Las Vegas, now I’m an old, beat-up bookmaker. I’m probably going to stick around for at least another year or two, and then decide from there. I am personally so fortunate to wind up where I have. It’s been an absolute dream come true. I feel pretty good. I feel like I’m not 72. But I am 72. I can’t beat that price.

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