Fans in Las Vegas create a frenzy of excitement the opening weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, cheering and jeering at televisions all around the sports books.
Even a week from today, after men's teams in Tampa and other sites have packed up for home or the Sweet 16, the frenzy in Vegas will continue.
For women's games.
Chances are you've never wagered on a women's game, or even heard of anyone doing so. Just as it's a safe bet you've never filled out a women's bracket.
The point spreads won't show up in the morning paper, but bookmakers estimate as much as $5-million was legally wagered in Nevada on women's college basketball last year. More than 140,000 fans filled out brackets last year in ESPN.com's free Tournament Challenge.
As women's basketball continues to slowly grow on a national level, gambling is an awkward but unquestionable acknowledgement of the rising interest in the sport. It won't touch the huge following that the men's tournament generates — an estimated $90-million legally wagered, and as much as $2.5-billion illegally across the country — but the women's game is proving that if you have favorites and underdogs squaring off on TV, you have people who want in on the action.
"Women's basketball definitely isn't under the radar of professional gamblers," said Rachel Newman Baker, the NCAA's director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities. "It's eye-opening for a lot of the schools to learn the large amount of money that's wagered on their games."
Interest all over Vegas
Fifteen years ago, Robert Walker was the only guy in Vegas who would touch women's basketball. A fan for years, he would research teams just as he did for the men and set point spreads at the MGM Mirage for games in the NCAA Tournament.
"For a long time, we were the only ones to put up lines," said Walker, 46, who has set lines in Vegas for 22 years.
Kenny White, chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Sports Consultants, remembers the slow progress.
"First it was Robert, then came Caesars, because Robert had it right next door, then Harrah's the next year," White said. "Now everybody is booking it."
An oddsmaker seeks to set a point spread that will generate an equal amount of money wagered on each team; if a large amount is bet on the favorite, the point spread might go up, to encourage betting on the underdog.
Setting lines for the women's opening round is especially difficult because of the extreme disparity between the top seeds and their tiny 16th-seeded opponents.
Two years ago, Duke was set as a 44-point favorite against Southern University, an incredibly large point spread, but the early bets still went with Duke, raising the line to 45. Gamblers were right: The Blue Devils destroyed Southern, winning 96-27 and covering the spread by more than 20 points.
That same weekend, Oklahoma opened the tournament as a 33-point favorite against Pepperdine, but bettors put enough early money on the underdogs that the line was lowered to 27 points. Sure enough, the Sooners struggled and won by only 12.
Everyone in the pool
For most fans, gambling during the NCAA Tournament isn't about point spreads; it's about filling out a bracket and guessing the winner of every game. This annual tradition is almost entirely associated with the men's field: ESPN.com's free online bracket drew 3.2-million entries last season.
ESPN has offered a women's version for 11 years now, and while last year's drew only 140,490 entries, that's double the number of brackets filled out just four years earlier. The prize — a $5,000 gift card to Circuit City — is half what the men's winner gets, but with 25 times fewer people going for it, fans have a much better chance of winning.
The NCAA is vigilant in guarding against the presence of gambling around student athletes, educating them that they must not place any bets on college or pro sports and be careful not to share information about their team with anyone who might be gambling.
The NCAA, with help from the FBI, gives an antigambling presentation to tournament teams, identical for men and women.
The NCAA allows its athletes and administrators to participate in tournament brackets that have no entry fees but do reward prizes; however, many schools, including the University of South Florida, University of Florida and Florida State University, prohibit their athletes from participating in any kind of brackets.
All part of 'the sell'
DePaul coach Doug Bruno, a former president of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, recognizes that his sport is trying to expand its fan base, to reach demographic groups it hasn't connected with. One such target, he said, is "what I call the jaded male demographic."
But as much as the NCAA needs to distance itself from gambling, if that brings in a group of fans, introduces them to the game, it's a positive statement about the progress of the sport. One part of the NFL's incomparable commercial success is the prevalence of weekly pick 'em contests and fantasy football leagues.
"If you're interested in growing the sport, the sell is going to have to include all aspects of fans," Bruno said. "Vegas is an aspect of that sell."
So the NCAA will have representatives at each regional next week, reminding players of the dangers of gambling and that the stranger asking them in the hotel lobby how a teammate's injured ankle is doing, well, he really doesn't need to know. Each year, the awareness of gambling on women's basketball will rise a bit higher, guarding against the dangers that can accompany it.
"You'd have to be a naive idiot to not know people are out there betting on games," Bruno said. "(The NCAA is) always going to include the women's teams when they talk about it, because there have been bad situations on the guys' side. It's as standard as drug testing."
Greg Auman can be reached
or (813) 226-3346.