March 18, 2013 at 9:00 AM ET
Looking for a sure bet in the gambling capital of the world? If you’re a fan of sports, spread betting and parties, the odds don’t get much better than they will in Las Vegas this weekend. It’s March Madness, baby, and the game is definitely on in Sin City.
“The Super Bowl may be a bigger single-day event but for the atmosphere and excitement there’s nothing like March Madness,” said Anthony Curtis, president of LasVegasAdvisor.com, an online newsletter. “Places are jam-packed and people are just going crazy.”
In fact, the first weekend of the three-week NCAA basketball tourney — March 21–24 this year — is typically one of the city’s busiest weekends of the year. In 2011, the tournament boosted the city's occupancy rate to 97.7 percent, its second-highest of the year, according to the most recently available data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Traditionally, most of the action has taken place in sportsbooks, those oversized man caves in the major casinos where fans can catch multiple games on big TV screens while betting, drinking and trash-talking the competition.
These days, though, many casinos hold even bigger parties in on-site theaters and ballrooms outfitted with bars, bigger TVs and portable betting stations. With seating for hundreds of people, suffice it say that not all of the action takes place up on the screens.
“It’s very social; it’s like a big guys’ reunion,” said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Everybody’s rooting for one side or another — not for them to win necessarily but for them to beat the spread.”
So much so, says Schwartz, that more bets are placed during March Madness than during the Super Bowl. The latter, of course, is just a one-day affair. This year’s March Madness, on the other hand, runs March 19–April 8, culminating in the Final Four in Atlanta, April 6–8.
But In Las Vegas, it’s the opening weekend that really brings out the crowds. “The casinos are just teeming with people from the beginning of the day on Thursday to the end of the day on Sunday,” said Curtis. “People hang out, they drink, they bet — in some ways, it’s better than being at the games themselves because you can’t do there what you can do here.”
If that sounds like a winning proposition, here are some places to catch the action:
Aria Resort & Casino
Recently renovated, the 10,000-square-foot sports book at this hotel at CityCenter features plush couches, multiple betting stations and 90 TV screens, including two that measure a whopping 220 inches. For those spending the night, the resort’s March Hoops package offers two nights lodging, VIP entry to the Liquid pool lounge and other complimentary and reduced-fee perks for $258 on weekdays and $358 on weekends.
The former Las Vegas Hilton is home to the LVH Superbook, which claims to be the largest sports book in the world. And yet, even with seating for 350 people and 28 giant screens, it’s not big enough to hold everyone who wants to watch the game. March 21–24, the hotel will also host Hoops Central in the 1,500-seat LVH Theater with giveaways, satellite betting stations and food and drink specials.
Fancy yourself a baller? If so, head to The Cosmopolitan for Hoops & Hops March 21–24. Held in the hotel’s Brera Ballroom, the festivities feature a 72-foot sports bar, concessions from the hotel’s restaurants and a hardwood basketball court where fans can work on their own fast breaks and fadeaways. Tickets are $40–$375 per day, with higher-end tickets upping the stakes with additional freebies and VIP amenities.
Overlooking the casino floor, the resort’s mezzanine level will be command central for a variety of Hoops on the Mezz offerings. For $109 per person, fans can enjoy open bars with Coors Light and Miller Light beer, all-you-can-eat buffets and giveaways. The Championship Package offers all that, plus premium liquor, front of the line sports betting and special appearances by a bevy of beer models, all for $3,399 for a group of 12.
Fremont Street Experience
When the buzzer sounds and it’s time to step outside, the Fremont Street Experience promises to keep the party going with its Downtown Hoopstown event every night through March 31. Visitors can test their skills on 20-foot, 25-foot and 30-foot hoops, catch stage shows from the Hardwood Hotties dance troupe and scope out the world’s largest NCAA bracket on the overhead Viva Vision screen. Best of all, if you lost big bucks betting the spread, it’s all free.
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.