March Madness At The Sportsbook: Winners, Losers, And Memorable One-Liners
The opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament is over. Sports bettors must now recover from wagering on college basketball in four consecutive 12-hour shifts. There were winners and losers and we had front row seats in Atlantic City, New Jersey to cover it all. From Yale’s last second cover to Wofford’s crushing defeat, we recap the experience of people-watching, sipping beers, sweating and soaking in Atlantic City’s sportsbooks during the first three days of the NCAA Tournament.
As we were chronicling March Madness in Atlantic City, one bettor summed up wagering on the NCAA Tournament this way: “It’s like giving birth. It’s excruciating and, in the end, you may or may not be happy with the result.”
Here’s our three-day sports betting recap of how things went down during the first year of legalized sports wagering on the NCAA Tournament in Atlantic City.
“If it says Louisville, I got it.”
We arrived in Atlantic City around 10:30 a.m. ET on Thursday and headed right to the Golden Nugget (actually Schmitto got there the night before). People were just starting to file in and discuss the early games. Louisville and Minnesota were first to tip-off shortly after noon and consensus at the Nugget was on Louisville laying -4.5. One bettor noted that he didn’t trust Richard Pitino, claiming he only got the job because he’s Rick’s son. An interesting theory but it was enough for that guy to fade the Golden Gophers.
A couple of Golden Nugget regulars showed up just after 11:00 and sat behind us. They were also pro-Louisville. One bettor told us, “I got Louisville, over Louisville, Louisville first half, Louisville over first half. If it says Louisville, I got it.”
Result: Minnesota (+4.5) 86, Louisville 76
“We came here to do damage.”
The most intense game of the first day at the Golden Nugget was the matchup between No. 14-seeded Yale and No. 3 LSU of the East region. We spoke to a couple of bettors who were on Yale +7.5 pretty big. It didn’t look good for them early after LSU led 45-29 at the half. However, the Bulldogs came storming back and were in position to cover late. Yale trailed 79-71 and everyone was on the edge of their seats. The sportsbook erupted when Yale nailed a three-pointer with just 15 seconds left in the game to cover the spread.
Not everyone was happy, though. A group of bettors sitting right next to us had LSU. Following the loss, one guy stood up and gave a Knute Rockne-like speech, telling his friends “Let’s get our shit together! Stop telling people who we got. We came here to do damage now let’s Fu**ing do it!”
Result: LSU 79, Yale (+7.5) 74
“I can get even with Kansas.”
Talking to bettors throughout the day, some had already gotten off to a rough start heading into the afternoon and evening games. One guy told us, “I’m 0-4 so far today but I can get even with Kansas.” Luckily for him, the Jayhawks made it easy, blowing out Northeastern 87-53 to cover 6.5 points.
One bettor we spoke to at the Golden Nugget went winless early. He started the day off with Louisville, LSU, Michigan State and Florida State. The FSU game was a particularly tough beat because the Seminoles (-8.5) passed up an open layup at the end of the game up seven. FSU won 76-69.
“That’s it. That’s the one.”
Following the loss, the guy scoured over his betting sheet, looking for a winner. He asked us who we liked. We discussed a few of the later games but there was one team he felt strongly about: Nevada. “I really like Nevada -3.5 over Florida. It’s my favorite play of Round 1. That’s it. That’s the one.”
He said goodbye and we wished him luck. He walked up to the window to place his big bet on Nevada. Hopefully things turned around for him on Friday.
Result: Florida (+3.5) 70, Nevada 61
“I want to die in this place.”
On Friday, we switched locations to the new William Hill sportsbook at the Tropicana where we had VIP seating. For our money, it’s the best venue in Atlantic City to watch sporting events. We heard from multiple people who said it’s their favorite sportsbook in New Jersey. I was overcome with emotion, mostly joy, and declared at one point, “I want to die in this place.”
We had a good group of guys sitting next to us who were throwing down a lot of money on the games. They weren’t pro bettors, but like a majority of the crowd, in Atlantic City for the weekend looking to have a good time.
One guy asked me who I liked and I told him Utah State was my favorite play. Despite knowing me for only 10 minutes, he turned to his group of friends and said, “Guys, Utah State is the big bet of the day.” Needless to say, he won’t be sending me a Christmas Card after the Aggies got clobbered by Washington 78-61.
“Let’s go Cincinnati!”
The Trop was hopping early for the Cincinnati-Iowa game. The action was split for the matchup with supporters for both sides being vocal throughout the game. One inebriated Bearcats bettor kept yelling at the top of his lungs every time Cincinnati made a bucket. “Let’s go Cincinnati!” Every basket. At the top of his lungs. “Let’s go Cincinnati!”
That guy wasn’t nearly as raucous in the second half when Iowa (+4.5) came back to take the lead. Instead, it was Iowa bettors celebrating, as the Hawkeyes kept draining threes en route to an upset win. (And damn near close to another upset win against Tennessee, two days later, but they did get the cover.)
Result: Iowa (+4.5) 79, Cincinnati 72
“We’ll just keep doubling down until we win.”
The next slate of games brought some of the best moments of the weekend. It seemed like every person in the sportsbook was on UC Irvine +4.5 and Texas Tech -13. One guy told his buddy, “Let’s just bet UC Irvine and if it loses, we’ll double down. We’re here to gamble. We’ll just keep doubling down until we win.”
While a questionable betting strategy for sure, it worked out this time as the Anteaters upset Kansas State, 70-64, to advance to the second round.
Much to the delight of my colleague and Texas Tech alum Matt Schmitto, the Red Raiders were never in danger of losing to Northern Kentucky. However, covering the spread was in serious jeopardy after Texas Tech relaxed late with a big lead. The Norse were down 15 in the final second and attempted a three-point for the cover. The shot didn’t go in and the reaction from victorious Texas Tech bettors was one of the loudest during our three-days in the sportsbooks.
Result: Texas Tech (-13) 72, Northern Kentucky 57
Liberty or death
The primary game in the evening at the Tropicana was clearly Liberty versus Mississippi State. The trend from earlier in the day continued with a large percentage of bettors siding with the Flames +6.5. One guy told us, “Give me Liberty or give me death. It’s all on Liberty +6.5.”
One bettor decided to fade the masses and take Mississippi State. The guy had lost 13 straight bets before winning on Buffalo -6 over Arizona State earlier in the day. The win ended his cold streak and he was feeling good about a Bulldogs cover. “If Mississippi State loses, I’m going home,” he said. “I’m done.”
At one point I started to wonder if people were on the Flames just to sing the Liberty Mutual Insurance jingle. During the game, we heard multiple people singing, “Liberty, Liberty, Liberty,” every time the Flames hit a shot.
It worked. The Friday consensus continued to cash, as Liberty came back in the second half to score the outright win.
Our friend was true to his word. He left the sportsbook and we didn’t see him again.
Result: Liberty (+7) 80, Mississippi State 76
“Winning money helps ease the pain.”
We returned to the Tropicana for Saturday’s games and even after two days of betting and boozing, people showed up early ready to gamble. The first game of the day was No. 6 Maryland vs. No. 3 LSU. There was a large group of people from Maryland there to root on the Terrapins. “We got a lot of money on Maryland +3.5,” one of them told us.
The game closed at 3 at most books and the next few hours would another high note of the opening rounds. The sportsbook was packed and you could feel the energy in the room. It didn’t look good for Maryland backers early with LSU taking a 38-29 halftime lead.
But Maryland stormed back though and the last couple of minutes were an emotional roller coaster for bettors. First, LSU hit a big three to take the lead…
Then, Maryland answered back with a three of their own to tie the game…
LSU prevailed with a layup in the final seconds to win by two, but it was Maryland backers who took home the spread money. Our friends went home disappointed that the Terps’ bid to reach the Sweet 16 came up short but as one Maryland fan told us, “Winning money helps ease the pain.”
Result: LSU 69, Maryland (+3.5) 67
“The SEC is overrated.”
As crazy as Maryland-LSU was, the pinnacle of the NCAA Tournament in the sportsbooks came in the next game between No. 7 Wofford (pronounced wah-ford) and No. 2 Kentucky in the Midwest region. Opinions on this game were split almost 50/50. A lot of bettors thought 5.5 points was too small a number, so they were on Kentucky.
Others thought Wofford had a legitimate shot at pulling off the upset. One bettor we spoke to put $500 on the Wofford moneyline. “The SEC is overrated,” he claimed.
Turns out both sides were right. Wofford did almost pull the upset, although in the end, 5.5 points wasn’t enough to get the cover. Kentucky was up two points late with Wofford needing one stop. A questionable foul call on the Terriers put Kentucky up four after two made free throws.
Wofford’s Fletcher Magee missed a three-pointer and the ball went out of bounds. In fact Magee, one of the nation’s top three-point shooters, set an NCAA Tournament record by going 0-for-12 against Kentucky.
The Wildcats only had to get the ball in bounds to secure a win, but everyone knew what was coming.
Kentucky hit two free throws and Wofford’s last second heave fell short, giving the Wildcats a win and cover.
Seconds after the game was over, Kentucky bettors marched to the window to collect their winnings. I’ve never seen a line form that quickly. They ran up there like the book was going to run out of money. Maybe I’m still salty because I was on Wofford +5. Oh well, to the victor go the spoils.
Result: Kentucky (-5) 62, Wofford 56
After the Kentucky game, the sportsbook cleared out. The evening games were all blowouts and for the first time since we arrived in Atlantic City, the books were dead. The bettors who remained were either tired, down money, or both at this point.
As we were leaving the Tropicana and about to say goodbye to Atlantic City, one bettor came up with this gem…
Yeah, that didn’t go very well. They say what happens in Atlantic City, stays in Atlantic City. Apparently, that includes my money staying there too. Even though I didn’t hit it big, it was still an amazing three days. Watching the NCAA Tournament in a sportsbook is something all bettors should experience at least once in their lives. We saw the highs and lows, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, all in one place.
One gambler probably said it best when walking out of the sportsbook to go home, “Fu**ing Atlantic City, man. She’ll chew you up and spit you out. Had a great fu**ing time though.”
Let’s do it again next year.`