Turns out, bookmakers have feelings, too. And that makes things a little complicated when it comes to the improbable success of the Vegas Golden Knights.
Tony Miller, director of the race and sports book at the Golden Nugget, said his heart is with the expansion National Hockey League team, which made the playoffs in its first season and begins its run at the Stanley Cup on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Kings.
His head, however, is with the bottom line.
“If they win the Stanley Cup, it will be devastating,” Miller said.
That’s because oddsmakers like Miller put the Golden Knights as long shots to win the NHL championship before the beginning of the season in October — with some places initially offering them at as high as 500 to 1. That has left some of the city’s sports books exposed to mid-six-figure liabilities if the team caps a magical season by winning it all and payouts of thousands of dollars to fans who made those early wagers.
Some of that financial reckoning has already begun. Betting tickets have been cashed with the team’s capture of the Pacific Division title. The next sports-book loss would come if the Golden Knights win the Western Conference Championship. Then the financial dagger would be if Vegas won the Stanley Cup.
Las Vegas sports books aren’t emotional. Math and money move the lines. Odds are derived from cold analysis. Wins and losses. Offense and defensive matchups. Fans can bet with their hearts — the books will take wagers from both sides and only align with whatever makes their bottom line black.
The Golden Knights are the first major professional expansion team for Las Vegas, and that has brought with it an elevated excitement level for a city that craved to be seen as more than just hotel rooms, casinos and free-flowing booze 24 hours a day. The team — along with the upcoming arrival of the Raiders from Oakland — was Las Vegas’ bid at identifying as a regular city with suburbs, a community and residents not named Celine Dion, Britney Spears and Elton John.
Then the Oct. 1 mass shooting happened.
The Golden Knights had a flashy home opener planned, but the shooting forced the team to scrap that. The team went more somber, lighting the names of the 58 victims of the Route 91 Harvest country music festival on the ice prior to the game. First responders were escorted into the rink and honored before the face-off. Advertisements for that first home game were removed from the boards and replaced with the words “Vegas Strong.”
There is a reservoir of goodwill the team has forged with the community, according to Michael Green, assistant professor of history at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He said unlike Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV basketball teams in the 1980s and 1990s, when “there was some local pushback against the image of the team,” there doesn’t appear to be any derision aimed at the Golden Knights.
“The aftermath of the massacre and the team’s reaction to it may have a lot to do with that,” Green said.
Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, was at the home opener for the Knights and said he got emotional watching it all unfold. He thought of one of his son’s best friends — a police officer who was wounded during the mass shooting. He said reminders of the tragedy were everywhere and that it seemed everyone was either affected directly or indirectly by the shooting.
But he also remembered the team went on to win the game, 5-2. After that win, they were 3-0. And the Golden Knights kept on winning. The Westgate kept lowering the odds as the weeks wore on and the victories kept piling up. First 100 to 1. Then 80 to 1. And 50 to 1.
The wagering didn’t slow down.
“I mean, it was a tsunami. It wasn’t like it was trickling in,” Kornegay said. “With today’s convenience with mobile wagering, locals could bet from their couch. And they were.”
Inside, he was rooting for the Golden Knights. But he also knew the price of each win could cost his casino later.
Bob Scucci, director of race and sports books at Boyd Gaming, said they anticipated heavier wagering locally on the Golden Knights and offered early on at 150 to 1. He said if the Golden Knights had been an expansion team in another city, the odds would’ve been closer to 300 to 1.
He said they have a few tickets that have $30,000 payouts if the team wins the Stanley Cup — and a lot of smaller wagers. He said this season has been the highest handle on NHL wagering that he’s seen in his 27 years working in oddsmaking.
Like the other books, Boyd Gaming began adjusting its odds quickly as the Golden Knights got off to the hot start in 2017. But he also attended a few games and felt the effect they had on Las Vegas.
“I can’t speak for the company, but on my own personally, I can’t root against this team for what they mean to this community,” he said. “Whatever happens, we’re going to book the games the way they need to be booked, but it’s hard not to root for this team.”
Fans at a small rally and parade Saturday featuring the Golden Knights drum line and cheer squad for a video promotion seemed to be unconcerned about the sports books losing.
Nick Russo said he wished he’d gotten in on a small bet when the team was 200 to 1 to win the Stanley Cup, but he’d be just as happy with the team winning the title.
He said he knows the sports books will lose if the Golden Knights win and that’s fine with him. The 34-year-old said he thinks there would be long-term benefits to a Golden Knights championship that are worth the cost to the sports books’ bottom lines — namely a sense of pride in the community.
“I’d rather see the team hoist the cup and bring the house down,” he said.
Christian Moreton — another fan at the parade — did bet on the Golden Knights. Just not early enough to when the odds being offered were still long.
Moreton, 24, said he had thought about taking the team for $10 or $20 when they were at 150 to 1 but kept holding off. He finally put down $20 when they were at 6 to 1. The Las Vegas native said he’ll look like a savvy investor when the team is at 2 to 1.
Frank Kunovic, director of specialty games at Caesars Entertainment, said the casino’s exposure to a Golden Knights championship consists entirely of grass-roots and smaller wagers at a high volume. The loss to the sports book, he said, would be in the mid-six figures.
He said the Golden Knights account for 17% of the betting tickets and 14% of the money risked in the Western Conference. The Knights are also second in the number of bets to win the Stanley Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins have the most bets.
Kunovic said he’s been to 30 home games out of 41. He bought season tickets the day they became available. He was there on March 31 for the final home game when the team retired jersey No. 58 and lifted a banner with the names of each of the 58 people who died in the mass shooting.
“I’m very emotionally attached to this team,” Kunovic said.
The financial risk the sports books have to a Golden Knights championship isn’t likely to bankrupt casinos. One bookmaker likened the losses taken by a Golden Knights Stanley Cup victory as comparable to a very bad NFL Sunday.
According to the Nevada Gaming and Control Board, sports books account for a tiny percentage of gambling wins for the state.
In 2017, the state took $11.6 billion in gambling revenues and the sports books accounted for $249 million of that total — just over 2.2%. On the Las Vegas Strip, sports books accounted for 1.78% of the gambling win in 2017. Downtown, sports wagers were responsible for $37.7 million — less than 6% of all gambling revenues.
Miller, a Las Vegas native who has been working in sports books since the 1980s, said he’ll be “rooting for them and I’m rooting against them” as the playoffs begin. He said there are a few people who bet at the Golden Nugget that could collect $20,000 if the team captures the NHL championship.
Most tickets, he said, are smaller. There’s just a lot of them. And if they win the championship, there will be mixed emotions.
“If they [the Golden Knights] go down the Strip in their convertibles hoisting that Stanley Cup, you’re going to see a lot of happy faces,” Miller said. “But also, a lot of sad faces.”