Thursday, February 15, 2007
Examining the prospect of an NBA team moving to Vegas, and what it would mean for sports betting
For sports gamblers, following the NBA is a grind.
The grueling day-to-day pace of pro basketball's long regular season engenders a sense of randomness not seen in other sports, bedeviling bettors in their quest to make predictions against the point spread.
The NBA even lacks a marquee betting event like the NFL's Super Bowl or college basketball's March Madness.
Yet pro basketball wagering maintains a strong position in Nevada's sports betting hierarchy -- strong enough that handicappers and sports book officials say it's an extreme long shot the state would ever agree to remove the entire NBA from the betting boards.
Legal betting on the NBA has been a sticking point in discussions about a franchise one day moving to Las Vegas, although NBA Commissioner David Stern -- long an anti-gambling fanatic -- appears to have softened his stance on the issue, according to recent reports.
"The NBA is definitely a tremendous asset for sports books," said Jeff Sherman, assistant manager of the Las Vegas Hilton sports book, widely recognized as one of the state's leading sports books. "Overall, our basketball handle, both college and pro, keeps increasing at a great rate."
In calendar year 2006, bettors wagered more than $641 million on pro and college basketball combined in Nevada sports books, about 27 percent of the total sports betting handle of $2.4 billion, state Gaming Control Board figures show.
Of the $641 million wagered, sports books won a little more than $46 million on basketball, or about 7.2 percent of the total. By comparison, books won, or "held," about 8 percent of the $1.1 billion wagered on football and 4.8 percent of the $457 million bet on baseball in 2006.
State regulators track basketball wagers combined without separating them into college and pro. Sherman said more betting tickets are written on college basketball because of the sheer number of games on the board, but the NBA commands a higher average bet.
Although he could see Nevada gaming officials agreeing to a compromise by which a Las Vegas NBA team's games would be taken off the board, Sherman doesn't believe they would go much further in negotiations with the league.
"I think it's unrealistic to talk about taking the whole NBA slate off the board," Sherman said.
In the estimation of veteran bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro, basketball wagering is divided evenly between college and the NBA.
"There was a time when the NBA easily outdistanced college basketball (bettingwise), but now it's different," Vaccaro said. "I'd say it's about 50-50, split almost down the middle."
If Vaccaro's appraisal is accurate, it would mean bettors risked $320 million on the NBA in Nevada sports books last year -- significant in the realm of sports betting, if less so in the overall gaming picture.
"I'd make it a huge favorite that we would never bend that much (by removing all NBA games from the board), but nothing is out of the question," Vaccaro said. "Casinos will always make their decisions and organize their priorities according to how much money is at stake."
As an illustration, Vaccaro mentioned a trend that began in the early 1990s that saw casinos devote more space to retail shops.
"They realized they could sell a 'Siegfried & Roy' T-shirt for $75, and everything changed," Vaccaro said.
If legal NBA wagering were to disappear like a 600-pound white tiger, the sports betting scene would be poorer for it, professional sports handicapper David Jones said -- even though pro basketball can be maddening for gamblers.
"In the NBA, you have to pick your spots carefully," Jones said. "It's much different from the NFL, where you can focus on particular patterns over the 16-game season."
In a recent game between Boston and Detroit, for instance, the Pistons were a 10-point favorite and cruised into the fourth quarter with a 22-point lead. The Celtics mounted a late rally, however, and lost by only seven points.
In another baffling game, the high-flying Dallas Mavericks were coming off a blowout victory against Philadelphia entering a game against slumping Milwaukee -- yet the Bucks, 3-16 in their previous 19 games, led the Mavs by double digits throughout most of the game.
A few "bad beats" like that could make a guy swear off sports betting in order to take up Caveman Keno.
"There's no real rhyme or reason for some of these things," Jones said. "From that aspect, the NBA is a little more difficult (to handicap) than other sports. You just have to do a lot of homework and keep up with the daily ebb and flow of the league."
If Las Vegas does land an NBA team, Jones projected, the league's games will almost certainly remain on the betting board.
"Even David Stern seems to be coming around," Jones said. "Holding the All-Star Game there is a big step. I think he understands the big picture."
Las Vegas sports handicapper Erin Rynning, who prides himself on following the ins and outs of the NBA daily, is also a big supporter of keeping NBA wagering legal.
"It would be wrong if they had to take the betting down in order to get a team in Las Vegas," said Rynning, who like Jones is affiliated with the Sportsmemo.com handicapping group.
"The betting was here before the NBA. It's only right that they insist on keeping it. I know I like going around town checking out NBA lines at the different books."
Rynning said he would be fine with the books adopting the so-called "old UNLV rule," by which no bets would be taken on a Las Vegas team. Before 2001, betting in the state was not permitted on UNLV or UNR college games.
Even that compromise would be symbolic at best, and more likely just silly, Rynning said.
"I guess the hang-up is that teams would be staying in hotels where the game (point spread) is posted," Rynning said. "But NBA players make so much money, and you're talking about typical betting limits (at most major casinos) of $2,000 or $3,000 a game. Any kind of a fixed game is really out of the question."
With that, Rynning returned to handicapping the weekend's NBA All-Star activities.
That's right -- the All-Star Game and its ancillary competitions are off the betting board in Nevada, but offshore sports books are still taking action.
Rynning will probably recommend a play on the sophs in the NBA rookies-vs.-sophomores exhibition.
"This is one of the worst rookie classes I've ever seen," Rynning said. "Any time you have an edge, you have to take advantage of it."
Las Vegas Sun, Feb. 15, 2007