By Chris Emma-
LAS VEGAS (CBS) — Counting down the final seconds of a blowout game, a theater filled with about 2,000 people went into frenzy.
In a sparsely filled gym in Washington, with Michigan State leading by 16 points and 15 seconds on the clock, Delaware’s Sean Locke stepped to the free-throw line for two shots. Fans had already begun to file out of the venue. But in Las Vegas sportsbook LVH, everything was on the line.
The Vegas spread had the Spartans as a 14-point favorite over Delaware, and Michigan State would hold the ball for a victory, one long in hand. Two points would cause a push for the wager. Locke clanked his first free throw off the rim, and the crowd exploded with split emotions.
One man sprinted through the aisle, high-fiving people en route to the window to collect his winnings. Another heaved his losing ticket over the theater balcony and ripped back his Bloody Mary.
This is a common scene in casinos all over Sin City, where seemingly ordinary games create a circus-like atmosphere. For the madness of March, it’s an incredible scene.
Sean Locke is a name many casual bettors from Thursday will rue. Todd Fuhrman still remembers names like Brandon Heath and Mohamed Abukar, members of San Diego State’s 2006 team that blew a would-be cover in a loss to Indiana.
Fuhrman, a former oddsmaker at Caesar’s Palace and now a game analyst with Fox Sports, was 21 years old and with friends on a bachelor party. It was the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and his group split a bet on San Diego State covering a 2.5-point spread. The Aztecs unraveled and crushed a clear victory.
Years later, Fuhrman can laugh at his first experience in Las Vegas for the big dance.
“You don’t remember the ones that you got lucky to win, you remember the ones you got unlucky to lose,” Furhman said.
On Thursday, the fun of college basketball brought work for Fuhrman. He was on a Fox Sports set for four hours in the morning, then back at night to recap the day’s events. But much of his enjoyment comes from seeing fans from across the country flock to the sportsbooks.
“For folks who come in and don’t have the chance to bet legally throughout the course of the year, it’s such an opportunity,” Fuhrman said. “To see people, how excited they get to take advantage of the opportunities, it’s very refreshing.”
Walk downstairs for a cup of coffee on Thursday morning and a line wraps out the nearby sportsbook door, extending deep with a thousand people. One man wore a Wisconsin shirt, another donned a Syracuse jersey and one had Indiana’s candy-striped pants on with a red Hoosiers jersey.
This was the line to wager on these NCAA Tournament games, and it was packed with people hours before the sportsbook even opened. For every one degenerate, there was a score of more casual fans.
Vegas sportsbooks see their biggest days in the month of March. Nothing draws crowds to ticket windows quite like the NCAA Tournament.
Thursday and Friday of the tournament feature a combined 32 games, stacked together. The fast pace of basketball makes for unpredictable wagering as a game — or a point spread — can slip away in a hurry.
“It’s just one of those things that everybody gets involved in a sporting event,” Fuhrman said. “Everybody has a vested interest, whether it’s a bracket, a single-game wager, a future, a regional. People just want to be in action.
“A five-dollar bettor can have just as much fun as someone betting a thousand dollars.”
Or they can be just as miserable over a missed bet. That promising betting slip can instantly become a loser, crumpled up and thrown off a balcony.
Names like Sean Locke and Brandon Heath live in the Vegas sportsbooks for years. March becomes true madness in Sin City.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter@CEmmaScout.