Christmas comes very early for college basketball fans every year, and the 2017 celebration starts March 14 with the opening rounds of the National College Athletic Association men’s hoops tournament known as March Madness.
Over the course of the next three weeks, a field of 68 teams will be winnowed down to one, and that team will stand alone as the national champion.
Naturally, major celebrations will occur in each of the 15 cities hosting games between now and April 3. But without question, the largest party of them all will be in Las Vegas, spread across sports books throughout the area.
The biggest parties in town are in the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip—places such as Caesars Palace, Wynn Las Vegas, The Mirage, and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. I once wrote about the phenomenon for the New York Times. As that article recounts, the scene gets raucous, like a pep rally on speed. For many, the excitement is less about allegiances and more about winning money.
Admittedly, however, the vibe has changed over the years. The crowds are tremendous. Betting queues are 30 minutes long. Perhaps most disturbingly, casino companies, seizing a profit opportunity, now sell reserved seating with food-and-drink minimums to guarantee that fans are spending money the entire time.
Instead of assimilating into this chaos as we used to, my friends and I have devised a different approach: We take the first long weekend of the tournament to post up in a sports book off-Strip.
Our book of choice: the one at Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa, out in Summerlin, near the Red Rock National Conservation Area. We like the place for a number of reasons, including the ultra-HD screens that make us feel like we’re watching these guys in a movie theater, comfortable booths in the VIP section, where we sit because of how much we wager as a group, and the lack of annoying crowds.
Another reason we like the Red Rock: drink promos. Every bet of $50 or more earns a ticket for a free drink. For those who aren’t comfortable betting that much per game, a few bucks on horse races every now and again earns free drinks, too.
(We also ship out our own high-end brandy, which our friends in the sports book let us drink as we smoke our Cuban cigars.)
Looking ahead to our trip—the 10th annual for me—this year it will be interesting to see how mobile wagering changes the vibe. The ability to bet on sports on your mobile device is relatively new in Nevada, and it means that anybody—even people who hail from out of state—can wager at any time through a mobile app, as long as both person and mobile device are physically in the state. My oddsmaker sources tell me this means more onlookers will be more engaged for more money, more of the time, which could make the energy reach new decibels.
On a more personal note, later this week I’ll grapple with something I’ve never faced in a sports book before: emotion. For the first time ever, my alma mater, Northwestern University, has made the Big Dance, and its first game is Thursday. Normally I’m one of those dudes who cares only about making bank. This year, however, I’m invested in at least one team for a different reason and will wear my purple with pride.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.