March brings NCAA Tournament madness and a memory of power rankings past

March 21, 2024 7:10 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports
March 21, 2024 7:10 PM
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

Given the sky’s-the-limit era of legalized sports betting we’re living in, the photo that flashed across my social-media feed recently seems nostalgic, almost quaint.

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Five members of the veteran handicapping crew at Michael Gaughan’s South Point smile in anticipation of the controlled chaos of the 2024 NCAA Tournament. They put in long hours in recent months, measuring talent and balancing numbers and intangibles with the kind of knowledge and understanding of betting and human nature that comes only with time.

There’s Tony Sinisi, who for two decades was part of Michael “Roxy” Roxborough’s brain trust at Las Vegas Sports Consultants. Roxy’s betting-line service helped revolutionize the legal sports-betting industry long before it exploded around the country.

Next is Chris Andrews, a member of a legendary family of Las Vegas bookmakers. He grew up in the business and now serves as director of the South Point’s sportsbook. He’s also the author of two entertaining books on his favorite subject.

Then there’s Alex White, representing a new generation of handicapper who started in the high-tech era. The daughter of longtime sportsbook boss Ken White, she also represents a third generation in the business.

As Gaughan Gaming Sports Book Director and Vice President of Las Vegas Dissemination Co., Vinny Magliulo is closing in on his fourth decade in the sports-betting industry. On his way up, he performed just about every job in the industry.

Finally, there’s Jimmy Vaccaro, who defines the phrase “been there, done that.” He broke into the gaming industry in 1975 at the Royal Inn pitching blackjack, then opened the Barbary Coast’s sportsbook. For decades, he’s been a constant presence at major casinos, including the MGM Grand, Golden Nugget, Mirage, and now South Point.

Add it up and that one photo represents well over 100 years in the sportsbook business.

For his part, Magliulo tells me he’s been updating his power ratings from the beginning of the season in an effort to keep the numbers fresh and focused. Now that the field has been announced, the same principles apply, with the handicappers working together to determine the most attractive numbers. The best numbers, of course, are the ones that draw action from the players.

If the early reaction is any indicator, they appear to have done their job. Within hours of going up with the betting lines, sharp players, who have their own power ratings and considered opinions, began betting. More than $200,000 passed through the window in under an hour. A good sign, Magliulo says.

Magliulo, with a sense of Nevada pride, notes that the Mountain West Conference sent six teams to the tournament, a remarkable feat for any conference. Although UNLV was left out of the Big Dance, UNR landed a 10th seed in the first round and is scheduled to play 7th-seed Dayton Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City.

“It’s a credit to the conference, the fact that those six teams got in this,” he says. “It’s a big statement, for sure.”

As a boy in Brooklyn, Magliulo bet in the schoolyard – even against nuns. That’s a young fellow with real promise by anyone’s measure.

My own childhood wasn’t as colorful, but I do recall joining my grandmother, Catherine Curtis, in a bet on the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. Our heartache lasted most of the winter.

As a kid growing up about a mile from Fremont Street, when I wasn’t playing the games I loved, I kept lists of favorite players and their statistics. The backs of many baseball and football cards were worn out by studying the stat lines and comparing players. A lot of kids I knew kept a list of their favorite teams’ strengths and weaknesses. Whether in their heads or on a piece of notebook paper, they ranked their picks and compared them against the so-called experts at the wire services and in the coaching fraternity that appeared in agate type on the newspapers’ scoreboard pages. We didn’t call our No. 2 pencil numbers-crunching power ratings, per se, but the best stat-based sports periodicals of the day did.

Even as a 12-year-old, I realized people put their best math knowledge to use to take on the bookies. They bet on sports whether the NCAA or your parents liked it or not.

Las Vegas wasn’t like every other community in America for many reasons. It differed from those outside Nevada, for one, because it offered legalized sports gambling from stand-alone books located outside the well-known casinos. 

As the whistle blows and the teams tip off for another NCAA Tournament, millions of Americans are scanning their brackets. Some are students of the game and others are just out to have fun.

Either way, it’s a reminder that sports betting, for all its complications and critics, remains part of the fabric of sports itself.