Marking Time During March Madness in Las Vegas

Reflecting on the fun of a long weekend in Sin City while passing the torch to a new generation in 2019

The March Madness Viewing Party sign at The Orleans Hotel & Casino.
Jeff “Woody” King and his son, Zach.

(First published on March 25, 2019) We knew Woody was bringing his son this year to our annual convergence in Las Vegas for March Madness. This was a first, though. No millennial had ever joined our graying, belt-loop-loosening core of Gen X-ogenarians to watch the smorgasbord of opening-round play in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  

Group consensus is that our gang will be sitting at a Vegas Viewing Party in the second-floor ballroom at The Orleans Hotel & Casino long after we’ll require spittle buckets and portable oxygen tanks.

So, was this a changing of the guard? No.

However, seeing Woody’s son—a lithe, 22-year with a full head of dark hair—at our table is cause for retrospection. It’s a gut check. Literally and figuratively.

I’ve written about March Madness in Vegas several times over the past three decades. Our original posse formed in Baltimore after college and now we live all over the country. We’ve been as small as a four pack and one year swelled to two dozen. This year, we fly in to Sin City from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin and California for the 27th time.

No kidding, it takes two days of head scratching to accurately put the annual count at 27. (Note: Hoops and hops don’t help when you’re trying to do math.) That first year, the crew huddled in the now-detonated Stardust Hotel. We slept four to a room and laughed at fart jokes. Guys rolled in and out at all hours. Those free Heinekens we got at the Stardust sports book seemed like gifts from heaven.

In the beginning of our March Madness run nobody had kids. We were kids. Now here’s Woody’s boy, technically an adult, putting back Bud Lights with his old man and the rest of us… um…gentlemen of a particular demographic.

Why Las Vegas for March Madness?”

The Orleans’ Viewing Party ballroom (2019).

Over the decades, March Madness in Las Vegas has grown from a “thing” to a “really big thing.” Hotel occupancy runs at 99 percent for the weekend and more than $300 million is wagered on NCAA Tournament games.

Most hotel-casinos set up some version of a viewing party. Costs to attend range from free to a couple hundred dollars a day to thousands of bucks for private man caves and unlimited booze and food.

You can watch the games from casino sports books (where wagers are made), but most books are standing-room-only during the tournament. Likewise, you could try to catch the games (32 of them during the opening round on Thursday and Friday) at a sports bar. But good luck snagging a table or a bar stool.

Even grabbing a spot at The Orleans Viewing Party requires one of our guys (Thanks, Fish!) getting up at sunrise, standing in line and rushing into the ballroom when the doors open.

The front of the line to get into The Orleans Viewing Party (2019).

We spend hours upon hours in this ballroom. It’s filled with huge projection TVs and floor-level flat-screens. There’s a concession stand stocked with hot dogs, pizza and wagon loads of chicken tenders; bars selling buckets of beer; and portable betting kiosks.

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Senior moment: My recollection of these portable betting kiosks is that they’ve always been manned by wrinkled, white-haired grandpas who grunt when you make a bet and hand you free drink tickets without looking up. This year, it looks like all the bet takers could be in a fraternity with Woody’s kid. 

Viewing parties are both insular and collective. You sit with your ow tribe at your own table full of empty beer bottles and torn betting slips. But everybody is watching the same games. Duke will be favored by the bookmakers to beat an underdog by 25 points—and it’s almost always the case that with two seconds left and one team on the foul line the game differential is 24 points.

This year, I expect betting apps to be in fashion—but find that the current ones available in Nevada are getting mixed reviews. Apps let you place bets on your phone without getting up from the table (like we need less exercise). None of us are Luddites, but one reason to eschew apps is that they don’t dispense free drink tickets. Ticket makers at betting kiosks do.

It’s likely, though, that by the time Woody’s grandson is joining us for March Madness in Vegas the betting process will be an app-alooza.

Another March Madness in the Books

Southwest Airlines’ story about Herb Kelleher.

It’s just a 55-minute flight from Las Vegas to my home in San Diego. This year on the return trip I feel bloated and tired—and peeved I forgot to check in on Southwest Airlines, so I get a “C” boarding pass that lands me in a center seat.

Elbow to elbow, yet alone with my thoughts, I think about how this Vegas trip has become a time-marking milestone. I don’t celebrate my birthday; nor do I care to venture out among the amateurs on New Year’s Eve. However, I can reflect on the fact that I’ve put 27 March Madnesses in the books.

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Ruminating on this, I grab Southwest’s in-flight magazine and note that the cover story is about the recent death, at 87, of the airline’s famously gregarious founder. Herb Kelleher was a legend who took Southwest from a fleet of 3 planes to more than 700. His motto was: “The business of business is people.”

Kelleher laughed loudly, made friends quickly and remembered the name of every employee he ever met.

The in-flight magazine story notes that Kelleher gathered friends together every year at his Texas ranch to eat, drink and tell stories. A business associate and good friend remembers that Kelleher took delight in retelling stories that most of the crowd had already heard once, twice or nine times.

Kelleher’s tongue-in-cheek opinion: “You don’t understand. I tell the stories for my enjoyment, not yours.”

Our March Madness crew.

Yep, that’s what we do during March Madness. I used to roll my eyes at retold stories. Now, every March, I revel in them; I instigate them. Retelling old stories is like watching your favorite Seinfeld rerun. You know what George is going to say; what Kramer is going to do. There’s comfort in knowing the plot.

Our March Madness stories are shared memories. Retelling them—even with a pinch of embellishment—keeps them alive, and keeps us lively. Without pointing fingers or naming names, we’ve got stories with plot lines that involve: getting kicked out of a cab; getting beat up by a bouncer; hitting big at video poker; chowing down on steak dinners; hearing about new jobs and the end of relationships; seeing pictures of newborns.   

Now those newborns are taking seats at the table. That’s cool. Evolution is fine, welcome, inevitable even—and all the more bearable when anchored by certain parameters that never change.  J&J

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