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Cashing In On March Madness

Inside the most exciting month of sports betting in Vegas

By Buzz Daly

 When you mix hordes of college basketball aficionados with high-limit gamblers, stir in comp brewskis and frazzled bookmakers, and shake it all up (not gently), the resulting concoction is the three-week betting marathon in Las Vegas known as March Madness.

Officially, it’s the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and this celebrated event brings out an energetic mix of bettors, many of whom could just as easily be here for Spring break. College kids, recent grads and older alumni from schools competing in the tournament fill the city’s sports books. The younger ones are those walking around jubilantly slurping free beer.

Here’s an observation from a veteran sports bettor: “I think March Madness has got to be the most fun a guy can have coming to Las Vegas. I know I did as a young dude.”


Locals, wise guys and syndicate bettors round out the punters jamming sports books and betting windows during the frenzied first weekend. This year’s action, which spans four time zones, gets underway March 15-18, Thursday to Sunday, with early games tipping off around 9:00 a.m. and late action commencing sometime after 7:00 p.m.

Todd Fuhrman, senior race & sports book analyst for Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas, characterized the crowd that settles in at his shop: “It’s an eclectic mix, and I mean that in a good way. You’ll see men and women, mainly men, of all ages flooding the betting windows, trying to take aim at the tournament lines. Whether they’re there for a 21st birthday or making the pilgrimage for the 21st year in a row, watching fans live and die with each and every free throw is an experience to behold.”

He described the betting action on the big dance as “consistent and unrelenting because as soon as one game ends, there’s a line to bet the next one. So many games in one day is hectic, but fun.”

The opening glut of games tests the endurance of both bettors and bookmakers. Invariably, players who wait until the last minute get shut out. Meanwhile, the opening to get down on half-time sides and totals is generally 10 minutes—from the time the numbers are posted, until the start of the second half. Add futures bets for winners of each regional bracket, a healthy array of props, and the speed at which lines are moved, and it’s easy to see why the books have a substantial edge over novices. In addition to the frenetic pace of the action, many of these bettors are not serious players; they’re betting with their hearts, not their heads.

The regionals, held March 22-25, offers a less hectic schedule with the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight spread out over four days.

The Final Four, slated for March 31 and April 2 and held in the Louisiana Super Dome, will feature the surviving favorites, dark horses and Cinderella teams.

There are all sorts of strategies employed by serious bettors as they try to fatten their bankrolls, including looking for teams with experienced guards; with good free-throwing records; and teams that are peaking. But the odds makers are pretty adept at sniffing out trends and making sharp opening lines that reflect both the relative strengths of the matchups, as well as the expected bias of bettors for either side.

Despite the surfeit of games during the opening weekend, Fuhrman said setting half-time lines at Caesars Palace “isn’t any different than it would be on a busy hoops Saturday. There are definitely bigger decisions and swings for the house, but the only adjustment we might make is shading a highly public side a half-point max,” he explained.

Over the years, the most reliable strategy I’ve found for getting an edge at most books is making selective half-time bets. That’s because given the pace of the tournament, there isn’t much time available to put up especially sharp half-time lines. Generally, the numbers posted are a reflection of the opening line. So both the side and total will be around half the opening number, within a variation of a few points. In many games, this is valid—but not always.

In some cases, half-time lines are not commensurate with the way the teams figure to play the rest of the contest. If you’ve been watching a game, and the half-time line — based on what you’ve already seen and taking into account the foul situation — doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. This is when savvy bettors pounce. Finding real edges is very difficult, and half-time opportunities don’t require a lot of studying.

Watching the games in sports books amidst a raucous crowd of hyperventilated bettors as well as diehard fans is a unique experience. Spirited renditions of college fight songs have been known to erupt spontaneously, and the trash talk among rabid fans from rival universities is unlike anything you’ll hear in a sports book during the rest of the year.

Getting a seat at a book the opening weekend rewards early birds. Fuhrman noted that general seating at Caesars Palace begins filling up around 4:00 a.m.!

By the way, don’t expect to see references such as March Madness, Final Four, or NCAA in print ads or on casino marquees in any way, shape or form throughout Vegas, due to copyright and licensing restrictions. Those words may be used only in an event that is “officially sponsored,” which is seldom the case with local companies, but may be used in ads for national advertisers such as Coke, Pepsi, Budweiser or Coors.

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