Vegas still center court for March Madness despite sports betting expansion
Legal sports betting is available in 33 states. But when it comes to March Madness, Las Vegas is still the No. 1 destination for college basketball fans.
It’s tough to buck tradition.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off this week and Southern California independent advisory firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming projects almost $2.6 billion will be wagered on the 67 games scheduled to be played over the tournament’s 18 days.
The analysts predicted that Nevada sportsbooks — predominantly in Las Vegas — would take in more than $361.8 million in wagers on March Madness, the highest amount of any state and nearly 14 percent of the expected national wagering total.
“Vegas remains the marquee destination for gamblers, gamblers who want to package a vacation with gambling and gamblers who are driven by events like March Madness,” said Eilers & Krejcik analyst Chris Grove. “There's really only one place in the U.S. they think about going to in the aggregate, and that's Las Vegas.”
A spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said the agency can’t provide visitation or economic impact figures tied specifically to March Madness because data collecting doesn’t differentiate between visitors here for the tournament versus those visiting for other reasons.
However, information compiled by gaming analysts shows Strip hotel room rates have increased 53 percent for the first week of March Madness compared to a year ago, with most of the major resorts nearly sold out.
March Madness was big business on the Strip long before sports betting began its nationwide expansion in 2018. For some visitors, a trip to Las Vegas for the opening weekend — when the field of 68 teams is reduced to the Sweet 16 — is a tradition going back decades.
Northern California freelance writer Matt Villano and several longtime friends have been coming to Las Vegas for the tournament’s opening round for almost 20 years. The group used to meet at Caesars Palace before moving the gathering to Red Rock Resort in 2013.
“It's comfortable and we can really focus on being together as friends instead of other distractions,” said Villano, who has occasionally missed the trip due to family reasons and the pandemic. The group often ventures off into other activities, but the central theme of the trip is the games and betting.
“No matter how easy it is to bet on your phone, there is nothing like being in a sportsbook and watching a game when you know half the crowd has money on a certain outcome,” Villano said. “Some of my favorite memories have less to do with who wins and more to do with making sure a team sinks that final basket to cover a point spread and keep a parlay alive. The vibe in the book is electric with people cheering, because they like winning money. You can't replicate that anywhere.”
Tourists drive the market
Nevada’s sizable share of March Madness betting volume reflects the tourism-driven nature of its sports betting market, analysts wrote. Grove suggested the sportsbooks could see an added lift given the final rounds of West Regional will take place at T-Mobile Arena from March 23-25, marking the first time the NCAA Tournament will be played in Las Vegas.
The NCAA announced last year that the Final Four will be held at Allegiant Stadium in 2028.
“It used to be, you come to Las Vegas just for the betting. Now you can come here for the sports as well,” Grove said. “That's an interesting combination. Is it going to double or triple the amount of sports betting revenue that we see in Nevada? Probably not. But can it have a material impact when you have marquee events, like the Super Bowl coming to Vegas [in February 2024]? Absolutely.”
In the research report, Eilers & Krejcik anticipated that five states — Nevada, New York, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania — would account for 56.5 percent of all wagers on the tournament. Ohio launched legal sports betting Jan. 1.
“Sports betting operators have done a lot of advanced marketing [in Ohio],” Grove said. “It doesn't take too long for a bigger state with a competitive marketplace to ramp up.”
Meanwhile, the American Gaming Association said an estimated 68 million Americans will wager $15.5 billion on the basketball tournament, legally and through other means, according to a research study. The Washington, D.C. trade organization said bracket contests associated with March Madness along with sports betting expansion have increased interest in the tournament.
“March Madness is one of the best traditions in American sports and America’s most wagered-on competition,” said AGA CEO Bill Miller.