Prior to 2017, if there was a major sporting event in Las Vegas, it was usually a prizefight or a UNLV basketball game. The governing bodies of professional and amateur sports were wary of endorsing sports betting, and Vegas was viewed as the sort of place where it was too easy for athletes to shave points or run afoul of other guidelines governing gambling behavior.
Then, just as a tragic mass shooting perpetrated by a sniper at Mandalay Bay nearly brought the Strip to its knees, the NHL’s Golden Knights began playing a few blocks north at T-Mobile Arena. There, the expansion team’s stunning march to the Stanley Cup Finals dramatically altered perceptions of Vegas’ ability to host and support top-flight athletic events without anyone’s integrity being compromised.
“When we got the Knights, especially at the unfortunate time when there was a shooting, I think the team really brought the town together,” said Motoi Pearson, who grew up in Las Vegas and is currently a senior trader at WynnBET. “It was wild to see an actual sports team that wasn’t UNLV playing, for a change.”
Floodgates opened after NHL’s arrival
The Knights marked the beginning of Vegas’ newfound identity as a live sports mecca. The WNBA’s Aces and the NFL’s Raiders now call Las Vegas home, and there are signs that another team from Oakland — Major League Baseball’s Athletics — may decamp for Sin City. (The rumors have made for some artful back and forth between the mayors of the two municipalities.)
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— Carolyn G. Goodman (@mayoroflasvegas) April 7, 2022
In addition, Vegas is reportedly in line for an MLS franchise, a National Lacrosse League franchise (owned by Steve Nash, Wayne Gretzky, and his son-in-law, the golfer Dustin Johnson), and an NBA franchise. Meanwhile, the NFL Draft is coming to Vegas next week, with the Super Bowl making a stop at Allegiant Stadium in 2024. And 2023 will see Vegas, which has become a popular destination for postseason conference basketball tournaments, hosting an NCAA men’s regional, as well as a Formula 1 race that already has international fans inquiring about hotel rooms on the Strip.
“These teams coming here, it really cemented that we were a community outside the Las Vegas Strip,” said Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of sportsbook operations for the SuperBook. “A lot of people don’t see that, but there is a lot of pride in this community that’s never been recognized. Maybe that’s why Las Vegans have a little chip on their shoulder when it comes to the city that they love. Some people still think I get my milk at the Mirage.
“I’m not sure if this market will be able to support all those professional teams,” he added. “But what’s unique about Las Vegas is we get so many visiting fans here that it could be sustainable because of that attraction. When you go to the Raiders or Knights games, you always see a fair share of visiting teams’ fans in the stands. I’ve talked to a number of them over the years, and I hear a similar story: Once the schedules come out, they circle that game in Las Vegas and a lot of them are going to make it an annual trip.”
The forecast of Robert Walker, director of sportsbook operations for US Bookmaking, is equally sunny.
“Vegas is well-positioned,” he said. “We have the rooms. Whenever I see a big fight, it’d better be in Vegas. If not, I don’t consider it to be a big fight. Formula 1, I think that’s going to be a spectacular event. We can house it; everybody has a great time. This is a marquee city.”
Or, as veteran Vegas bookmaker Dave Sharapan put it, “Vegas is ready for people to come all the time.”
Vegas NBA franchise could be ‘game changer’
But while Formula 1’s popularity in the U.S. is growing and the race is sure to be a marquee event for spectators around the world, Kornegay’s colleague at the Westgate SuperBook, John Murray, wonders if it will be as heavily bet as the annual NASCAR race that his resort sponsors.
“If there was an F1 race here, we’d see a huge uptick in handle,” he said. “But F1 has never been a heavily bet sport. It’s not on at a time that’s too conducive to viewing in a local time zone. I’d think it would be pretty big, but I don’t know how it would compare to a NASCAR race.”
Murray is far more bullish on the impact an NBA team would have on local sportsbooks’ handle, calling it “a real game changer.” And nobody batted an eyelid when plans for a $3 billion entertainment district south of the Strip that would include a 20,000-seat arena for an NBA team were recently announced — despite the fact that there are already four arenas in town with similar capacity.
Knights’ success caught sportsbooks off guard
Prior to the Knights’ inaugural season, the SuperBook opened the team at 300/1 to win the Stanley Cup — then “bumped them up to 500/1 after watching a couple of their preseason games,” said Kornegay.
Even at those extraordinarily long odds, Kornegay said, “There weren’t a lot of takers. No one really thought they were going to be even close to average. They were gonna be the worst team in the league, but we were happy they were here.”
But once the Knights began unexpectedly winning, Kornegay said wagering on the team “started off like a rainstorm, where you start getting sprinkles, and then it picked up a bit and then it became a storm.”
“It really caught us off guard,” he added. “By the time we got to December, that’s when they really caught the eyes of some of the more professional bettors. In the early going, the pros were betting against them on a game-by-game basis, but by the time they got to December, they were winning at a clip of about 70 percent — and that’s when they turned the sharp bettors around from betting against them to betting for them.”
“People were really fond of player props,” said Pearson, who worked at Caesars at the time. “All these guys playing for the Knights — to score a goal, to have a certain amount of points — once we started putting up player props and enlarging the menu, we saw a lot of handle on that.”
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— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) April 15, 2022
“It was basically like adding another sport,” added Murray, who noted that hockey was “a distant fourth” to the other three major U.S. sports prior to the Knights’ arrival.
Kornegay said it got to where the SuperBook had to shift the Knights’ odds off a truer number in order to reduce liability, explaining, “Almost every single game, we needed the team the Knights were playing [to cover and/or win]. It was great and painful at the same time. We bought season tickets and we were rooting for our local team, but on the other side of the coin was liability each and every game. They were just betting them like crazy. They didn’t care what the spread was. Even the sharps weren’t really touching the other side.”
Reminiscing on the pre-Knights era, Kornegay recalled, “Years ago, many of us thought we would never get a professional sports team. However, attending some of the Las Vegas Thunder games back in the ’90s, due to the crowd numbers we saw at those games, I always thought a hockey team would make it in Las Vegas. A lot of people thought I was crazy. That minor league team attracted over 10,000 fans a game [to the Thomas & Mack Center].
“Las Vegas is a very diverse community. We have natives from all four corners, but one of those corners includes the northern half of this country, and those are true hockey fans.”
Raiders’ arrival and the NFL’s embrace
With their California ties, “the Raiders were always really popular here even before they were playing here,” said Murray. “I think it was like 2015, when they made the playoffs, we had a big liability on the Raiders every week. If the Lakers moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, which would never happen, they couldn’t get much more popular than they are. When the Raiders have a home game, you see a little bit of an uptick.”
Comparing the Knights’ and Raiders’ respective arrivals, Kornegay said, “I think the difference is that, as a sport itself, the hockey volume increased five to 10 percent because of the Knights moving here. The NFL was already popular. You didn’t see that amount of uptick outside of the Raiders, but you certainly did on their games [after they moved to Vegas].”
“As for spread, we kind of played it out as we do with other popular teams, whether it’s Alabama or the Patriots or the 49ers. We don’t get too aggressive with those moves, because we know the sharps will find value with the other side. The numbers are very true and pretty solid, probably more so than any other sport. The reason the numbers are so tight is because of all the information we have on that league.”
As Vegas prepares to host the NFL Draft, with a Super Bowl in the near future, Sharapan is gobsmacked by the shift in attitudes concerning Sin City’s capacity to host pro teams and live sports.
“As someone who was here when you couldn’t say ‘Super Bowl’ in a book or on the sheets, I can’t believe it’s the same place,” he said. “The acceptance of it all, from the gambling aspect, I still can’t believe it every day. It’s nuts.”
“Vegas is kind of the melting pot of fans from everywhere,” explained Pearson. “People that I grew up with in Vegas, seeing a Knights here and a Raiders here is almost surreal.
“The betting was a bigger deal. Vegas revolved around that rather than the teams concerned. Now we’re seeing people wearing jerseys, knowing the players. That’s as exciting as the bets that’ll grow.”
Photo: Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY