When March Madness went quiet in Las Vegas

Sportsbooks went dark on March 19, 2020, during one of the busiest times of the year. Photo courtesy of Art Manteris

A year ago, Art Manteris was sitting alone in the back of his sportsbook at Red Rock Resort and Casino. He had been booking bets in Las Vegas since the late 1970s, but he had never seen anything like this.

He should've been in the thick of the madness of the opening Thursday of the NCAA tournament -- nonstop hoops action on the high-definition, wall-to-wall video screens while a packed house roars and groans with each basket. Instead, Manteris was by himself in the dark. It was quiet, with only the occasional flashing light or ringing sound effect from an unoccupied slot machine that had yet to be turned off.

"It was depressing," Manteris said, looking back. "It was a sad and confusing time."

The coronavirus pandemic stopped sports last March and caused Las Vegas to go dark at one of its busiest and most lucrative times of the year. The NBA suspended play March 11, and the NHL paused its season the next day. Soon, alerts from Don Best Sports -- an odds and information service used by U.S. and international sportsbooks -- began popping up on bookmakers' computer screens, notifying them that college basketball tournaments were being canceled one by one. In 48 hours, the odds boards at sportsbooks went from packed with more than 100 games to practically no live events.

The biggest blow to the sportsbooks, though, would come a day later, March 13, when the NCAA announced it was canceling the men's basketball tournament, a betting event even larger than the Super Bowl. Four days later, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered the state's casinos to close. The coronavirus had eliminated March Madness and shut down Las Vegas, leaving the entire sports world and an iconic city wondering what was next.

Now, in what seems like a new world, the Madness is back. The lights and video screens at Las Vegas sportsbooks have been back on for months now, and day by day, business has started to pick up.

On Monday, Nevada officials will increase occupancy limits at gaming properties to 50% for each area. That's up from 35%, where it was for the Super Bowl, and just in time for March Madness.

The first full days of this year's NCAA tournament will tip off March 19, with all games held in Indianapolis. It'll be one year to the day since Manteris sat in his dark and quiet sportsbook wondering what was coming next. He believes this year's tournament is another step toward a return to normalcy.

'Eerie' feeling when books went dark

On average from 2017 to '19, Nevada sportsbooks won a net $32.7 million in March. Last year, with sports coming to a standstill in March, the books' win during the month plummeted to $1.5 million, a 95.5% year-over-year decrease. Nevada Gaming Control estimates that approximately $349 million was bet on the 2019 NCAA tournament with the state's sportsbooks, more than twice as much as was bet on the Super Bowl that year.

"Collectively, the NCAA tournament is the biggest event of the year that we book," said Manteris, now vice president of race and sports for Station Casinos. "It's a significant part of business, so it was a big hit to lose it last year."

"March Madness is more of a parlay and beer-drinking crowd, so obviously our hold [win percentage] is much higher than the Super Bowl high rollers," said Jeff Stoneback, director of race and sports for BetMGM in Nevada.

Illinois, Iowa and Michigan were among the states that passed sports betting legislation in 2019 and rushed to launch sportsbooks ahead of the NCAA tournament. Illinois took its first legal bet on March 9, 2020. The state's retail sportsbooks were ordered to close a week later.

Iowa sportsbooks had been operating for a few months and were gearing up for their first taste of March Madness when the pandemic took hold. Wes Ehrecke, the CEO of the Iowa Gaming Association, remembers receiving calls from stunned sportsbook operators after the Big Ten tournament was canceled, asking, "What does this mean for wagering?"

"Well, there won't be any," Ehrecke remembers telling the callers. "For sports betting, just when we got some momentum, to have everything completely stop was really unthinkable."

By March 24, 2020, all retail casinos in the U.S. were closed, and the gaming industry was hurting. About 649,000 employees were impacted by the closures, according to the American Gaming Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents the U.S. casino industry.

States that required bettors to fund their betting accounts in person, such as Nevada and Iowa, were hit the hardest. Bookmaker William Hill U.S. launched a drive-thru outside of Arizona Charlie's Casino and allowed bettors to deposit and withdraw from their mobile betting accounts from their car.

Inside the casinos and at the sportsbooks, though, everything remained dark and quiet.

"It was eerie," said Stoneback, who works out of The Mirage on the Las Vegas Strip.

What do we do now?

MGM was scheduled to host the 2020 Pac-12 men's basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Stoneback remembers getting a call from the public relations team letting him know that fans would not be allowed to attend in person, and shortly after the tournament was canceled altogether.

Fans were left looking for something to bet.

"We had a lot of people in town, and those first couple days we had pretty big crowds in the room just betting the horses because there were no sports to bet on," Stoneback said. "Our race handle was very good for a couple days while they were still in town, then the whole thing started shutting down."

Everyone hoped mainstream sports would return within a few weeks, but as the suspension lingered into April and May, bettors and bookmakers began searching for alternative options. Table tennis tournaments in Ukraine and soccer matches in Belarus were suddenly on the board and attracting action at sportsbooks around the U.S. About $6.6 million was bet on table tennis with Colorado sportsbooks last May, the most of any sport. An international online poker tournament on March 24 attracted a record 93,016 entries, generating an $18.6 million prize pool, and the NFL draft drew significant wagering.

Meanwhile, bettors were having to find ways to cash outstanding bets. Many were mailed in to the sportsbooks, but because employees were working from home, the process was delayed. There were also questions about which bets were still valid, such as the odds to win the NBA title, and which ones would be refunded, such as the odds to win the NCAA tournament.

Bookmaker William Hill had taken at least four five-figure bets on the winner of the college basketball national title. Each would be refunded, a disappointing outcome for bettors such as Anthony Esposito, who had tied up money on teams for months, only to settle for getting his money back.

Esposito, a 43-year-old professional bettor, backed a handful of college basketball teams early in the season, including the Dayton Flyers at 50-1 odds for a few thousand dollars. The Flyers emerged as legitimate contenders during the season. Heading into the Atlantic 10 tournament, they were ranked No. 5 and had odds around 12-1 to win the national title. There was value in Esposito's ticket on the Flyers.

"With everything that was going on, it didn't really even cross my mind at that point," said Esposito, who works as a handicapper with well-known professional bettor Bill Krackomberger. "You're thinking about the more important stuff like health and family. And then, in retrospect, you look back at [the futures bets], and we were set up pretty good going into the tournament."

Esposito said there were some short delays in having his futures bets refunded, as sportsbooks paused to make sure the NCAA tournament was not going to be played at a later date. But for the most part, his money from his futures bets was back in his accounts within a few weeks.

Madness is returning

March Madness in Las Vegas is something special.

For years, revelers would stake out spots at the sportsbook at The Mirage overnight, taking turns holding seats, while partners went upstairs to the hotel room to catch a nap. Adult diapers were rumored to be used to avoid bathroom breaks.

To avoid any sticky situations, hotel officials eventually changed policies and decided to rope off the sportsbook the nights before the tournament. Now, lines form outside the sportsbook as early as 4 a.m., with people hoping to get one of the few open seats that's not already reserved. By the time the first games tip off at roughly 10 a.m. local time, the room is packed, with people lined up by the dozens to place their bets.

"I've always said, if I ever left Las Vegas, the first four days of the tournament would be the one event I would come back to town for," Manteris said. "There's nothing more exciting than having four regions going on simultaneously, one game after another, with the wins, losses and point spread being determined in the closing seconds."

Inquiries about space at Las Vegas sportsbooks for this year's tournament have been increasing in recent weeks. It's been a long road back, and there's certainly more work ahead as the nation, Las Vegas and the sports world try to recover from the pandemic. But we're getting closer, and for college basketball fans, it feels good to have a different kind of madness back in their lives.

"To me, it's the beginning of the end of the pandemic," Manteris said. "I'm looking at it as the very first step to regaining normalcy. It will be an emotional moment."