Like nearly everyone in his adopted hometown, Jay Kornegay has been swept up in the stunning success of the Vegas Golden Knights. The phenomenon is unprecedented in the four major sports, an expansion team winning its division, and topping that with last week’s first-round sweep of the Kings.
“I grew up in Denver during the Broncos’ ‘Orange Crush’ wave, when everyone wore orange in the 1970s … this is beyond that. Everywhere you look, you see Knights stickers, T-shirts, jerseys, hats. … I’ve never seen that before in this city,” said Kornegay, who was among the first to submit a deposit for season tickets before the team was formed.
There’s a hitch, however, for Kornegay.
He’s the race and sports director for the Westgate Superbook, which is confronting serious liability thanks to the Golden Knights’ amazing run that continues this week with the start of the team’s Western Conference semifinal series against the San Jose Sharks.
Not only is the Superbook on the hook for bets it accepted after opening the Golden Knights as the NHL’s greatest preseason longshot at 300 to 1 when it first posted future odds to win the Stanley Cup, but also Kornegay and staff increased the odds to 500 to 1 as a means to encourage action that was lacking.
MGM Resorts, which also lines the Strip with sports books from Mandalay Bay to the Mirage, also took bets on the Golden Knights at 500 to 1, said Jay Rood, its race and sports book director.
“I just looked at this today — and it’s the first time I did — and we have 13 bets on the Knights at 500 to 1. Small dollars, we call them ‘grocery dollars’; the biggest was $20,” Kornegay said.
That “grocery” money has the potential to transform to $10,000 should the Knights, paced by former Ducks center William Karlsson and Stanley Cup-winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, produce a Cup-hoisting accomplishment for the ages.
Early in the season, Kornegay watched his team win its first two road games, then improve to 3-0, so he sliced the odds to 300 to 1. Two small bets came in.
Then, as the Golden Knights began to capture the city’s attention and provide a distraction from the horrific mass shooting at a country music festival, the Superbook moved the odds to 200 to 1.
That’s when the fans started biting, and the book accepted 57 bets, igniting a new wave of daily betting on a sport that has long stood as the least popular wager among the major sports, behind college football and basketball and less, on a game-versus-fight basis, than boxing and the UFC.
Betting during Golden Knights “home games has jumped up quite a bit, and the overall awareness of the tourist on hockey is way up,” Rood said.
The Golden Knights’ odds to win the Cup are now listed at 9 to 2. The team stands as the third favorite, behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators, who are at 4 to 1.
Last week, Station Casinos offered its loyalty reward “Boarding Pass” club members a randomly selected free bet ranging from $5 to $250 (at 4 to 1 odds) on the Golden Knights to win the Stanley Cup, as an incentive to swipe their loyalty card at a Station location by Monday.
The greatest future-book longshot to win a championship was soccer’s Leicester City of the English Premier League at 5,000 to 1, “but no one bet them with me,” Kornegay said, recalling big financial hits suffered when replacement quarterback Kurt Warner led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl win in 2000 and a 500-to-1 NASCAR driver won a race a few years ago. He also sweated out NCAA basketball losses by massive underdogs Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason.
“We’re fans of the [Vegas] team, but we know in the long run, business will take care of itself,” Kornegay said.
The business of hockey betting has boomed like never before at the sports books along the Strip, with estimates that the books have seen a 35% increase in hockey wagers this season thanks to the excitement over the Golden Knights increasing local knowledge of the game.
As a Golden Knights fan, Kornegay said he and his family have become a bit “distraught” just because the team will have been off the ice for more than a week after eliminating the Kings in four games.
Does he think they’ll win the Cup?
“I hope they do. They have what it takes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll hoist the Cup,” Kornegay said. “We just posted the series price versus the Sharks and they’re a minus-140 favorite, which is less than being a three-point favorite in football. They’ve got a long way to go, and it’s hockey, where anything can happen. There’s so many upsets in this game. You can run into a hot goalie, have injuries. It’s a crapshoot, and this year will be no different, because all those teams in the West can be a roadblock.”
Many of Kornegay’s colleagues have taken to rooting against the Knights.
“If you talk to some of the guys … they maintain their ties to their teams from Pittsburgh or New York, and they’re saying, ‘We’ve got to knock [the Golden Knights] out,’ ” Kornegay said. “My boss, who’s from Pittsburgh, says, ‘No worries, they’ve got to get through the Penguins, anyway. … ’
“For me, it’s like, ‘Well, if my team wins, they win. But if they don’t, at least we saved ourselves at the book.’ ”
Follow Lance Pugmire on Twitter @latimespugmire