Las Vegas Welcomes The Spread Of Sports Gambling

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For years, Nevada has had a near monopoly on legal sports betting in the U.S. So you might think that Las Vegas might not be so keen on the Supreme Court's decision to allow all states to legalize sports gambling. But as NPR's Leila Fadel reports, casino executives and longtime bookmakers say the expansion could mean big wins for everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And the Celts to win it all.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: At MGM Grand, a bookmaker takes bets on games at a circular counter near the casino. Hockey is among the games being broadcast on the 47 flat-screens. Gamblers sit in leather seats to watch and to strategize.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Fifty dollars...

FADEL: Kevin Olson and Josh Sturm are on a guys' trip mostly to play cards and golf. The sports betting is icing, they say.

JOSH STURM: Honestly, there's a lot of avenues online that you can use. And people that we know and myself use online for sports betting quite often.

FADEL: But Sturm prefers to gamble in person rather than online.

STURM: You know, you always wonder is there some element of, you know, cheating, I guess? (Laughter).

FADEL: The American Gaming Association estimates people bet $150 billion on professional and college sports games illegally every year. And with the Supreme Court decision to allow states to permit sports betting, Sturm and his friend Kevin Olson could make legal bets in person closer to their homes in Austin, Texas, very soon.

KEVIN OLSON: If it's something that opens up in Texas, I feel like I would be doing a bit more sports betting just year-round, not just here in Vegas.

FADEL: But Olson says he'll still head to Las Vegas for the experience, golfing, shows, poker, slots and restaurants. And that's what bookmakers and casino execs are banking on. Later, I reached Jim Murren by Skype because he was traveling. He's the chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International.

JAMES MURREN: Yes, we've enjoyed a monopoly or near monopoly of sports betting. But Las Vegas benefits when there's interest in our field - our field of entertainment sports, sports betting, gambling in general.

FADEL: Many gaming experts agree. Murren says when casino gambling started in other states and Indian reservations, Las Vegas continued to thrive. He called the Supreme Court decision a sea change and says it will make Nevada the model for newcomers to the legal sports betting industry. MGM conducted focus groups over five years with their 30 million members to see how a decision like this would affect Las Vegas. And he says the findings show that people will keep coming and will take a greater interest in sports across the country. Also, it's an important step, he says, toward erasing the stigma attached to an industry often seen as predatory.

MURREN: The traditional view of the casino industry is starting to evolve. But it will be viewed much differently five years from now, and this'll be a major reason why.

FADEL: Murren says MGM hopes to expand sports betting to their other properties when other states begin permitting and regulating it. Right now, sports betting is a drop in the bucket of the money Nevada makes off gaming. In the last fiscal year, Nevada took in $688.6 million in tax fees on gaming. And only about 2 percent of that came from sports betting, according to the Nevada gaming association.

JIMMY VACCARO: Everything is controlled from here. Come here.

FADEL: At the South Point Hotel and Casino just off the strip, bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro takes me behind the counter to show me how people make bets online and in person.

VACCARO: I've been fortunate being in this crazy racket for 41 years. This is my...

FADEL: He says there's a lot to iron out to keep it lucrative, from state taxes to whether the leagues will get a cut of the betting. Vaccaro says there may be fewer people through the doors. But...

VACCARO: There'll be plenty of opportunities, a lot of other places where people like us to, in a sense, run their book for them only because of what we have done, only because...

FADEL: And that opportunity, he says, outweighs the possible losses. In the 41 years Vaccaro's been in the business, a lot has changed - betting moving online, more expensive costs to air professional football games.

VACCARO: We're always reinventing ourselves.

FADEL: And that is what bookmakers like him will keep doing. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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