The Madness that was March

It has truly been a mad, mad month. With media coverage and water cooler chat focused on both the war in Iraq (and rightly so) and the outbreak of SARS, I think March Madness provided a much-needed dose of old-fashioned entertainment. It was so nice to have an alternative to both the news and the spate of awful reality TV shows that it makes me want to scream Thank God for college basketball!

With the war and the tournament starting so close together a few weeks back, there was a definite impact on our industry, but maybe not in the way you might think. Yes, sign-ups were slower than we would have hoped the first day or so of the tourney, but by the end of the first weekend of play it was clear that college hoops were to be the main diversion for those wanting relief from the stress of the world around them and sign-ups jumped significantly. In total, we had nearly 100% more sign-ups this March than we did last year and by last weekend the pace was accelerated to the point where we signed up three times as many people this year during the three days of the Final Four as we did last year.

From a bookmaker’s perspective, the first weekend is a blur. Each game has the magnitude of a Sunday afternoon NFL game (not quite to Sunday Night or Monday Night Football levels) and because the start times overlap and change, it keeps you on your toes. After the first weekend, there is some breathing room and even though the games from the Sweet Sixteen on are of a much larger magnitude dollar-wise, it is far more manageable as there are no more than 4 games any night.

The first day (Thursday the 20th) got off to a quiet start with the first 3 games all fairly square in terms of action. The Cal/NC State game provided an exciting finish and players did have a little success with Gonzaga over Cincinnati. Then came a little heartbreak for the House. Players had bet moderately heavy on UConn over BYU and the line had ranged from -4.5 to -5.5, so when Travis Hansen made a meaningless lay-up with 1 second left to get the score to UConn by 5, it dampened our spirits a little as we were paying all the way around. Players also had success with Arizona over Vermont and Central Michigan over Creighton. Central Michigan got a lot of play because it became well publicized that they had been a Division I best 19-6 ATS before the tourney. Weber St. was close at 19-7-1 ATS so they got a lot of play also, which allowed us to exact some revenge when they lost to Wisconsin. Best game of the day for the books was the last one with #13-seed Tulsa upsetting Dayton. Day 1 started slow but built rapidly and ended being a good one for the books.

The action on Day 2 was much more evenly balanced. The only real big decision we had was Purdue/LSU and it went in our favor. A few small wins each way but we were happy to celebrate our successes from Day 1 and collect the vig for the day. There were lots of close games in the first 2 days (9 finished within 3-points) and a few upsets but nothing too spectacular with 15 of the top 16 moving on. I think bettors have gotten more sophisticated in the last year as we saw noticeably more action on the underdogs then we ever have before, especially at this early stage in the tourney.

Day 3 (Saturday the 22nd) was a great day to watch, as there were a couple of fantastic finishes. Just ask any Wisconsin fan! It also proved to be one of our very best for the entire tourney (with the House winning its four biggest decisions on Notre Dame (upset Illinois), Gonzaga (covered against Arizona in one of the best games of the whole tourney), Tulsa (covered against Wisconsin) and with Duke over previously-mentioned Central Michigan. The Chippewas had been a real favorite of our players and with early losses they were chasing heavy with Central Michigan and the points. Duke’s 26-point win probably cut the sale of Tum’s and heart medication in Costa Rica by half. Players had some success with small wins on UConn and Oklahoma but the day clearly belonged to the books.

Day 4 was the player’s turn, even though no game finished within 6-points. Bettors got everything back, and more, from the Duke win and a big hit on Syracuse over Oklahoma State. Players also did very well with Pittsburgh and Texas. The lone bright spots for the House were the upset of 2-seeds Wake Forest (by Auburn) and Florida (by Michigan State). The betting public had picked a good day to back the favorites.

Handle for the first weekend was up significantly (130%) over the previous year and it was my feeling that any effect the war may have had was long gone by Saturday. I will admit that I was feeling good about my bracket in the office pool after Friday (I was in first at that point) but by the end of Sunday it was in the garbage as I had Florida to advance out of the South and Illinois to upset Arizona in the West. Oops! next year, I tell you, next year.

The Sweet Sixteen got off to a good start for the book on March 27th with Wisconsin staying close enough to Kentucky to cover. Bettors had their turn with Arizona over Notre Dame but lost when Marquette upset Pittsburgh. The last game of the day also went the players’ way when Duke missed a couple of shots in the last 10 seconds and lost 69-65 to Kansas with a spread that had gone from -3 to -4. The increase in sales in Tum’s and heart medication that night probably made up for previous slumps.

Friday, March 28th got off to a bad start when Oklahoma pounded 12-seed Butler and when Texas beat UConn by 4 on a spread that moved from -2.5 to -4 (I am sure more than a few bookies were cheering for TJ Ford to miss both his free-throws in the dying seconds). The late games went the book’s way. First, Auburn made up 5-points in the last 39 seconds and covered against Syracuse. Then Paul Davis made a jumper with 6-seconds left and Michigan State upset Maryland 60-58 to give the book another big win. Just a handful of shots could have drastically altered the results for bettors and books on this day!

I mentioned earlier that I was surprised at the amount of underdog betting in this tournament. This was evident with the Marquette/Kentucky game that tipped off the Elite 8. I really expected Kentucky action as they had been bet heavy in their previous game and had garnered the lion’s share of action in Futures. Perhaps we over-compensated and had the line too high but, whatever the reason, players were actually slightly on Marquette and so their shocking 83-69 upset actually hurt us. The pain faded fast as the Kansas upset of Arizona proved to be the biggest win for us in the entire tourney. Kansas led 31-15 and we were feeling great but by Halftime it was just 38-35 after Arizona’s 13-0 run to end the half. Then Kansas came out hot and got up to a 56-42 lead. Again, we felt confident but then Arizona stormed back to take the lead 57-56 with 10:32 to go. What a game! The last 10 minutes was truly great basketball and having a big decision at stake made it that much more exciting. I’m glad Gardner missed both 3-pointers because I don’t think we all would have survived Overtime.

The pair of games on Sunday the 30th weren’t nearly as exciting. We were evenly balanced on the Syracuse/Oklahoma game and only watched half-heartedly as Syracuse racked up an easy 63-47 win. The late game saw all the action on Texas and although Michigan State turned in a gutsy performance and got to within 6 with a minute or so to play, it was never really as exciting as the late game the previous day. The 86-76 Texas win was our biggest loss of the tourney and for the second week in a row bettors had bounced back from a bad Saturday with a strong Sunday.

The Final Four turned out to be a little anti-climactic in my humble opinion. Our handle and sign-ups were tremendous with nearly triple the sign-ups and 2.5 times the handle of last year but the games themselves were lopsided and the action was so balanced we really had no one to cheer for. It was almost comical; we strive so hard to get balanced action and then we were confused and bored when it happened that way. We normally have a clear team to cheer for but it didn’t really matter who won these games. For the record, players came out slightly ahead on Kansas (94-61 over Marquette) and we came out slightly ahead on Syracuse (95-84 over Texas).

The final game was a bit of a seesaw in terms of wagering. Very early action was on Syracuse but by mid-Monday the betting was heavy on Kansas. There was a late spurt of betting on Syracuse, particularly on the moneyline and a little rush to the Over. It all ended with an 81-78 Syracuse win and us losing $55 on straight bets for the game. Can you imagine the thousands of players, tens of thousands in bets and hundreds of thousands in wagers to have just $55 change hands?! Amazing. However, we did have a moderately successful night thanks to a strange pattern of first and second half wagering. Bettors loaded up on Kansas in the first half (-3) so books cashed with the 53-42 Halftime lead for Syracuse. I kind of expected more of the same in the second half but bettors came out on Syracuse +7 in droves. The 36-28 Kansas rally in the second half completed the sweep and helped make for a profitable day. Bettors had done well on parlays as there seemed to be a heavy dose of Syracuse and the Over but the spread was just enough out of Teaser range to tip the exotics in our favor.

In all, it was a great tournament with some great games. For the book it was a success (we took more action on college basketball in March than we did on NFL and college football combined in December!).

I look forward to seeing Carmelo Anthony in the NBA, I look forward to the war in Iraq being over so our troops can come home soon and I look forward to next March. Hopefully the world will be a little more secure and the college tourney won’t have to carry the burden of providing relief quite as much, but it’s nice to know it can if called upon.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with the first of a few columns on baseball.

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Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino