This time last year, thousands were anticipating their annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas sports books for March Madness, the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship tournament. But when the pandemic hit, the tournament was canceled and March sadness prevailed instead.
With Nevada limiting the size of public gatherings, requiring masks and enforcing social distancing, the traditional frenzy during the first weekend of tournament play, March 19 to 22, will likely be tempered. The voices usually shouting at the sports books' massive video walls during games will be somewhat muted.
Barry Inciong, who has been coming to Las Vegas for March Madness annually for more than two decades, says it's the next best thing to being in an arena at the games themselves.
"Part of the appeal of buying a ticket and going to a game is that energy level," Inciong said. "If you're supporting the home team, everybody's going crazy, and it's contagious. The same thing happens in a sports book or the viewing parties in March Madness."
Inciong became hooked on the opening-round action in the early 2000s. "[The tournament] was a thing, but not nearly what it is today," he said. "The number of games going on all day! Being able to take a short walk to place a bet was the most thrilling thing. You took a side [a team], you took a total [the number of points scored during a game], and you have something to root for the next two hours."
The rich menu of 16 games during each of the first and second days of the 64-team tournament has an undeniable appeal. Staggered start times enable fans to see the climaxes of games within minutes of each other.
Inciong, an Orange County, Calif., resident, founded the 14,000-member Facebook group "March Madness in Las Vegas" in 2012 to discuss viewing parties, sports books, betting, hotels and travel.
"Everybody who's been there knows, yeah, there's this party going on. There are a lot of fun things, but how do we find out which ones are worthwhile? Which ones have the best TV setups? Which ones give drink [vouchers] most liberally for smaller bets. So it's really an information-share among people who were already starting to make it an annual thing."
The Westgate's SuperBook is among the prime locations to watch March Madness.
Blue-chip, perennial Final Four contenders for best sports books in Las Vegas are Westgate, Caesars Palace, Wynn, Venetian, Bellagio and Mandalay Bay.
Prime locations require reservations with minimum buy-ins for food and drinks, and there are deals like the SuperBook Sports Package at Westgate. Guests can book a two-night minimum stay through March 31 for travel through May 31. The package does not include a guaranteed seat but does provide a bucket of beer, a large pizza at Cordovano Joe's Pizza and $25 of casino promotional chips. Fans can book online with code PE0808D.
Joining the elite sports books for the first time this year is Circa downtown. Its sports book, opened in October and has been sold out for March Madness for two months.
Circa owner Derek Stevens, who also owns the D and Golden Gate downtown, is bullish about city's rebound during the tournament and beyond.
"I think It's going be the biggest March Madness Nevada has ever seen," Stevens said Feb. 18. "We're taking steps in the right direction from the Nevada side of things. Remember that the country keeps evolving and keeps changing. In the last five or six weeks, every Thursday and Friday night, when I get to see people I haven't seen over a year, they're immediately coming up [and saying] 'I'm excited to be here,' 'I missed being in Vegas,' 'I missed being at the D,' I want to see Circa' and 'I just got my shot.'"
Inciong, however, was on the bubble this year. He will likely gather with friends to watch the tournament and celebrate a milestone birthday in an Airbnb closer to home in California. Two informal polls of his Facebook group members conducted during the first week of February and last week indicated a little more than half of them were not going this year.
In addition to setting a budget and pacing alcohol consumption, both Stevens and Inciong had tips for those making the journey:
• Download, register and fund the sports books' betting app as soon as possible to avoid long lines at the betting windows. That's especially crucial for in-game wagering, says Stevens, whose properties' sports app joins Westgate, Caesars, BetMGM,Wynn, William Hill, Boyd and Station Casinos as among the most popular. Among the incentives for downloading: STN Sports offers a sign-up bonus of up to $500 directly funded to new accounts activated through March 31.
• Have a plan but be flexible. "You've got to have a little bit of a plan," Stevens said. "It's OK to be free-spirited and wander around and just have a lot of fun. But don't expect then on the Friday night of March Madness to be a walk-in into a steakhouse for 7 o'clock dinner. Those have been booked up for three months."
• Consider exploring off the Strip and the many locals-oriented sports books, Inciong says. Among the excellent locations are Station Casinos' Red Rock Resort in Summerlin, Green Valley Ranch in Henderson and Palace Station just off the Strip.
Augmenting the sports book is Palace Station's Tailgate Social, which hospitality company Clique Hospitality opened in the fall. It has 30 TVs, hard-to-find beers, signature cocktails and bar-food favorites. Walk-ins are welcome, or guests can book a prime viewing seat via opentable.com.
"In a normal year, people are hesitant to do that because they want the large crowd, they want the buzz, they want the energy," Inciong said. "But this might be a year where you're OK with being among a lot fewer people, which is always going to be the case anyway due to the restrictions."