I've visited Las Vegas during the NCAA Tournament before. For several years, I (along with some friends) was a regular during Sweet 16 weekend. One year, we did a bachelor party during Final Four weekend. But I'd never been to Vegas during the first two rounds of the tournament -- until this year.
And after experiencing the early parts of the tournament two weeks ago, I can definitively say that the best weekend to be in Vegas -- bar none -- is for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Las Vegas has a different vibe during the first weekend of the tournament. Students and alumni are sporting their college gear. There's a sense of optimism and hope -- both for the schools and the gambling that's about to commence. And Vegas is absolutely packed. And when Vegas is packed, the general buzz and excitement level goes through the roof.
I spent most of my time taking in the games at the Wynn, where they set up a fantastic event for people who were in town for the NCAA tournament. And I can guarantee that I'll be back at the Wynn next year for this event. It was that good. Here's what I loved about it:
10. Great seats
The setup at the Wynn was fantastic. Instead of trying to accommodate everyone in town to watch the tournament at its 200-seat sportsbook -- and many sportsbooks just added extra (and uncomfortable) seats, the Wynn reserved a ballroom in its convention space that seated about 700. A JumboTron, complete with four huge screens, hung from the ceiling. And giant TV screens flanked the perimeter, with six screens on each wall. Each screen was tuned to a different game. And the JumboTron was constantly flipping to the game with the most interesting action. So no matter where you were seated, you had a great view of the games you were watching and/or betting on. I've spent plenty of time watching games in sports bars, and I walked away impressed with the Wynn set up. It was vastly superior than most of the sports bars out there.
There were also two different seating areas in the room. VIP guests had access to very comfortable couches. The rest of the guests were at more traditional round tables with nice chairs. But regardless of where you were, it was easy to see the game that interested you most.
9. Great eats
The food at the Wynn bash was outstanding. There were burgers and burritos cooked to order. Hot dogs, hot pretzels, chips and other sports bar fare were also available. And it was all served (you could bring it back to your table) on the patio overlooking the pool, which provided a different sort of entertainment.
8. Great service
The Wynn is known for its great service, and this event was no different. Drink service was quick and efficient. The cocktail waitresses were friendly. And they knew exactly what their customers were drinking. I don't know how they kept track. But their attention to detail was impressive.
The great service wasn't limited to the cocktail waitresses. The cooks making the food were friendly and engaging. And the staff manning the betting windows always had a smile on their face, no matter how hectic it was.
7. Fun bonus prizes
Johnny Avello, who runs the race and sportsbook at the Wynn, was particularly proud of the "Three Throw" competition he had set up, and he had every right to be. A stage, complete with basketball hoop, was set up on one side of the room. Bettors attending the event were each given three free throws. If bettors made one free throw, they won a free drink that included Red Bull -- which sponsored the event bar. If bettors made two free throws, they were entered in regular drawings (at one point, it felt like they were happening every hour) for a $200 Wynn resort credit. It was a fun draw that the crowd really seemed to like.
6. Watch while you play
The Wynn brought the gaming floor to sports bettors, allowing people to gamble on table games while watching all of the NCAA tournament action. The blackjack table I spotted was packed throughout the opening weekend of the tournament. And the next time I'm there, I'm going try it out to see if I can concentrate on my cards and the betting tickets at the same time.
5. College pride
Bettors were representing at the Wynn, and in Vegas in general. I've never seen so many people wearing their college's gear, and it was pretty cool. I was wearing Michigan State shirts throughout the trip. And after the Spartan's buzzer-beating win over Maryland, random people would just high-five me. Very cool.
I have to admit, I didn't see this one coming. When I decided to watch the games at the Wynn, I figured I'd bet a little, eat a little and have some fun. But I didn't count on making new friends, which is exactly what happened. I don't know their names. And they don't know mine. But for three days, we hung out together and some fun. The Duke fans from Manassas, Virginia, started rooting for Michigan State because I was a Spartan. I started rooting for their teams to cover. Standing in line to place bets, people would exchange information. Regulars at the three-day event would check with each other to see if they were up or down for the day. This room of complete strangers came together over the course of three days to form a sense of kinship. And that's a rather remarkable story.
3. Betting on the games
Now we're down to brass tacks. Part of why you go to Vegas for the NCAA tournament is to bet on the games. And the Wynn made it easy for sports bettors. They set up betting windows inside the ballroom to handle all of the NCAA tournament action. And if you were watching in the main sportsbook, there were different lines (as there usually are) for horse bets and sports bets. The staff did a great job running the windows, and people were generally pleased with the way the lines and bets were handled.
2. Second-half lines
I am now a huge fan of second-half lines. There were plenty of tournament games I didn't have a great feel for. But after watching the first half of those games, I felt like I had acquired a good sense of what was going to happen next. And because the Wynn was posting second-half lines on every tournament game, I was able to wager with my "extra information." Several of the people at the Wynn were betting on second-half lines only, so it was clearly a popular offering. And it's now my favorite way to wager.
1. Johnny Avello
Avello runs the sports and race book at the Wynn, and he's the best. He started planning the NCAA tournament event right after the Super Bowl ended. And two hours and 30 minutes after the brackets were announced, he had opening lines posted on the first-round games.
"They were based on the 'Johnny Power Ratings'," Avello told Casino City with a smile.
Avello usually had the second-half lines posted within a minute of the game going to halftime. And he did that while somehow appearing to be everywhere at once. One minute he was conducting the drawing for resort credits. The next he was directing traffic at the window, making sure everyone was able to place their bets on time. And the next minute he was announcing the latest second-half lines.
"I'm worn out," Avello told Casino City on the night of the first Saturday in the tournament. But Avello said it with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. The room had been electric for three days. And he was the room's conductor. Good job Johnny. And see you next year.