LAS VEGAS — Like it or not — and the NCAA almost certainly doesn’t — for many, the true spiritual home of college basketball this month is not in Buffalo or Greenville, S.C., or the Final Four site of the Phoenix suburb Glendale, but in Las Vegas.
And that is why The Strip heaved with humanity Thursday as the NCAA tournament tipped off across the country. Patrons convened to celebrate the pinnacle of amateur sports while partaking in booze and bets.
“This is the biggest sports party of the year,” said veteran broadcaster Brent Musburger, before settling into a comfortable chair at South Point Casino, with the authority of a man who knows all about March and its lunatic streak.
“It is chaos,” he said. “That’s why they call it madness. You can bet early and bet often and have all the fun Vegas brings while you are doing it. It is a mecca for college basketball.”
Musburger popularized the phrase “March Madness,” previously used by an Illinois high school tournament, while broadcasting the event for CBS in the early 1980s. After a long career with that network and ESPN, he is now based here as the lead host for VSiN, a new network that targets the continually booming sports gambling fan base.
“The one unsaid part about gambling on sports is how social it is,” Musburger said. “I see the same people all the time. They are not betting thousands; it is where friends get together, they talk about the bad beats. It is like a family.”
The family keeps growing. According to the American Gaming Association, an estimated $295 million will be wagered on the tournament in Las Vegas casinos. Super Bowl Sunday in February brought in $138.5 million in bets, although that was just one day.
Las Vegas has been quick to pick up on the chance to make a mint in March. The gambler is always the underdog here, but hey, this is the first weekend of the tournament, the time when long shots with wide eyes and big dreams confound the money line. Sometimes.
“Las Vegas is now the home for March Madness for the whole country,” said Derek Stevens, owner of The D hotel and casino in the city’s rejuvenated downtown area. “It is an amazing phenomenon, and it gets bigger every year. For us, it is the biggest, bigger than New Year’s Eve or the Super Bowl.”
Virtually every casino is hosting extravagant watch parties. Room prices, at least those that are still available, are a reflector of demand. A Saturday night standard room at the Westgate resort, formerly the Las Vegas Hilton, will set you back $370. The same accommodation two days later? $86.
Las Vegas’ entrepreneurial streak also comes into play with imaginative marketing. There are margarita madness specials at the sit-out bars along The Strip, rumors of a mellow madness at a cannabis dispensary nearby and, if you feel like it, matrimonial madness offered at some of the wedding chapels.
It was that way for Joey Hess and Amy Denson. With both being college basketball fanatics, it made sense for their wedding in 2016 to have a March Madness flair to it.
“We wanted to mix an event and a sport that is so close to our heart with our most important day,” said Denson, who played professionally overseas for eight years and is now assistant women’s basketball coach at Portland State.
The pair wore high-top shoes with their traditional wedding garb for the ceremony, and for a photo shoot at Red Rock Canyon, guests watched games throughout the reception and the whole thing was a resounding success.
Denson stopped short of “dribbling a ball as I walked down the aisle,” but Hess said they enjoyed the experience so much they will be making an annual pilgrimage here. “For March Madness … and for our anniversary,” he said.
Over at South Point, Musburger got a hero’s welcome as he wandered through the casino to a studio where he broadcast for the next two hours.
To this crowd, the 77-year-old is as much a celebrity as the endless collection of DJs on Strip billboards are to electronic dance music nerds. The broadcaster is a man who has always felt it is OK to love sports and gambling and allow each to enhance the experience of the other.
“Beyond the gambling individual, a lot of people are interested and fascinated in the movement of gambling money,” he said, before starting a story about how March Madness just keeps getting madder.
“I looked at the board and was moving some underdogs around, and I said, ‘Folks, it is madness, it is March Madness,’ ” Musburger added, remembering his first use of the phrase more than two decades ago. “The term stuck, and it will always be there. I think that is why the NCAA won’t move it, even though the championship game is in April.
“And this is where the madness begins and ends.”