The evolution of March Madness in Las Vegas from fun guy’s getaway to mega-colossal, super event is complete. It’s now officially the busiest weekend of the year in Vegas—with 99 percent room occupancy and nearly $350 million being wagered on NCAA Tournament basketball games.
UPDATED 2/20/21: In 2020, the opening action was scheduled to tip off on Thursday, March 18 and run through Sunday, March 22. Of course, COVID-19 made the NCAA Tournament and March Madness in Las Vegas a wash.
I’ve seen it firsthand—having attended more than two dozen March Madness opening weekends. To survive and thrive in Sin City you’ll need to prepare. Like, now.
Summon your posse, wolfpack or crew and get everybody booking flights and hotel rooms right now. Decide where you want to watch 48 college hoops games spread over 4 days—at a sports book, sports bar or, ideally, at a hotel-casino’s viewing party. Learn or brush up on how to bet on games at the cage or download apps that most books now utilize for pick-ems, parleys and over-unders.
To get up to speed, check out this list of “10 Ways To Survive March Madness in Las Vegas.” It’s based on all the ups and down from my decades of experience. Most importantly, after you read this list: Book immediately. Everybody else probably already has.
1. Form A Crew
Sure, you could do this alone, but you’ll want backup. There are times when you’ll want to confer on what teams pick for a halftime over-under bet. One member of your crew can get up early and stand in line for viewing party entrance; somebody else might make the food run. As it is for the Duke Blue Devils or the Tennessee Volunteers, teamwork is essential.
2. Make Reservations Early
The tournament starts in mid-March. But if you wait until two or three weeks out, you’ll likely pay nearly double for airfares (unless you want to roll the dice with Spirit Airlines) and risk getting shut out of prime hotel rooms. (FYI: I try to book my flight and room in late November).
Do it now!
3. Join this Facebook Group
The very best collection of information about things that are happening during this weekend is contained in a Facebook page called: March Madness in Las Vegas. You’ll have to apply and be accepted—but fear not, there are more than 13,000 members.
There are general discussions, FAQs and moderated sections with information about just about every hotel-casino viewing party on and off The Strip. Look for the mentoring program, where veterans will take newbies under their wing and show them the ropes.
4. Arrive Early
If your crew has at least one early riser, you’ll need them to get up at 6 a.m. to hold space in line to get into a viewing party, or stake out an area in a bar or the sports book.
Sleep in and you’ll stand way in the back of every book. Same with getting a table or space at a sports bar. The viewing parties are all different—but the early birds do get the best worms, er tables and chair that have the clearest view of TVs, access to food and betting booths (see below for more information).
5. The Sports Book
A casino’s sports book is where sports betting occurs. Since 1949, Nevada had been the only state that legally allowed this type of wagering; however, a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban that could lead to books popping up in other states.
For now, at least, the sports book is the classic spot in a Vegas casino to lay down some cash on a game. During March Madness, the games will be shown concurrently on TVs. All the seating will be taken, lines will snake out of the book and people will be standing elbow to elbow trying to see if their underdog will beat the spread.
6. The Sports Bar
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could saunter into a Vegas sports bar any time of day during March Madness and belly up to the bar while four NCAA games played out on side-by-side TVs? Dream on, newbie. (Note: If you do get some prime real estate in a sports bar, see the section below about placing bets using an app.)
7. Viewing Parties
This is the best way to drink in the essence of March Madness. Most casino-hotels have set aside a ballroom or large space for masses of people to watch all the games. Giant-screen TV are set up. Food vendors are added to the mix. And most parties bring portable betting kiosks into the ballroom—so you don’t have to run out to the sport book to make bets.
Entrance fees for viewing parties differ, and could run from $100-$220. Check into offers of free food, t-shirts or complimentary drink tickets for placing bets. And again, check out the “March Madness in Vegas” Facebook page for updates and insider opinions on parties.
8. Betting in Person
This isn’t a primer on what teams to pick, how to fill out a betting card or what to say when you get to the ticket writer. Just know that standing in line at the casino’s book—or the portable kiosk in a viewing party—is becoming old school. Granted, the ticket writers are the folks who can hand out comp drink ticket—and if you show them kindness, they’ll often slip you extra ones. But using betting apps has slipped into the mainstream, and will likely be a big thing this year.
9. Betting with Apps
Most casinos now have their own betting app. You download it on your phone and fund it. After that, you can avoid trips to the ticket writers by just tapping in your bets. The technology has arrived, but is still evolving. Point spreads will differ from one book’s app to another. If you’re a tech junkie you’ll quickly adapt; more mature bettors will encounter a learning curve.
10. Enjoy Yourself!
Yes, booking flights and rooms early, picking viewing locations and figuring out how to place in-person or electronic bets can be stressful. Still, take the time to look around and enjoy the experience. Eat some good food—even the buffets have great offerings. Catch a show, or as of last year, an NHL game. Step away from hoops and play some poker if that’s your thing. Or, just soak in the camaraderie.
Best of all, prepare for getting a kick out of the shared experience of watching the greatest and most unpredictable sports spectacle in the world. There will be a moment during the tournament when half the room is cheering for the favorite, and the other half is pulling for the underdog. And whatever the point spread, it will all come down to the final shot. J&J