Everyone knows the house always wins in Las Vegas. Oddsmakers just had the wrong house.
The Vegas Golden Knights have dominated opponents with a league-best 19-2-2 home record. In a city where fans can show their enthusiasm in the form of a wager before heading to T-Mobile Arena, the dominance has an added dimension.
"We've been getting our butts kicked," South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said. "We should rename it 'free date night.' A guy invites a girl out to dinner and stops at the sportsbook on the way to the game. What she doesn't realize is we are paying for everything."
A $100 wager on every Knights home game in 2017-18 to date would have net a bettor $1,395. That is an extraordinarily profitable return. And, though hockey losses typically amount to little more than a rounding error for a casino's bottom line, the phenomenon that has been the first season for the first big-league team based in the only U.S. city where you can make a legal wager has created a perfect storm effect for the books.
"Hockey is usually a very poorly bet sport," William Hill director of trading Nick Bogdanovich said. "But all of a sudden we have big decisions and we keep losing them. Players just keep rolling over their winnings."
Local properties are booking between 10 and 15 times the handle on Golden Knights home games than for any other NHL team. And that number increases during the game, as fans can bet from their seats on mobile devices. In total, the handle represents the equivalent of an average NFL game, which is in the six-figure neighborhood for each sportsbook.
"When the [Chicago] Blackhawks came to town, my handle on that one game was more than the entire Stanley Cup Final last year," Golden Nugget sportsbook director Tony Miller said. "It's a good thing because they're betting other games but, man, it gets to a point where it's a love/hate relationship."
The Golden Knights surpassed their preseason over/under of 26.5 wins on Jan. 2. They can go over their projected season point total of 68.5 Thursday night against the New York Islanders. This unexpected run has collectively cost sportsbooks well over a million dollars combined, and the damage is more significant if you factor in adjoining parlays.
"The betting public found a new ATM," says Westgate Las Vegas Superbook oddsmaker and manager John Murray. "It's called the Golden Knights."
The "Vegas Flu?"
Like the fairy tale, this Cinderella story also involves danger after midnight. Some have theorized that the Golden Knights' impressive home record can be attributed to the "Vegas flu" -- visiting teams enjoying the city's temptations and perhaps not recovering properly.
If you subscribe to the "local distractions" theory, you could argue that the NHL schedule can serve as an enabler. In October, the Chicago Blackhawks arrived two days early and then lost as -175 favorites. The Colorado Avalanche chose to spend the night in Las Vegas before a 3 p.m. (local time) faceoff on Oct. 27. They lost 7-0. Both defeats came at the hands of a newly formed expansion roster of NHL castaways, including a third-string rookie starting at goalie.
"We hear the rumors but unless you have private detectives that say [players] were at [the legendary strip club] Spearmint Rhino or shooting dice all night, I don't know if that's the case," Bogdanovich said.
The stories are prevalent on social media but unconfirmed. One team nearly drank a prominent restaurant out of champagne in one night. Another team had a slush fund of $30,000 for a single night in Sin City. Are the stories true? Would it matter if they were?
"Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle would go out drinking all night," Wynn executive director of race and sports John Avello countered. "Guys would see them out and bet against them. They'd still get three hits the next day. For some guys, it doesn't affect them."
But Las Vegas is unlike any city visited by the Yankees of yesteryear -- no last call, and it never shuts down. Understandably, this narrative has resonated throughout the league and caused some teams to take precautions with hotel location or other restrictions. However, current Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella challenged the hoopla, questioning the toughness of modern-day players and mocking how "carrot juice" has replaced alcohol.
"We want them to go out," Tortorella said last weekend, before the team spent three nights on the Las Vegas Strip, including holding their annual rookie party. "I think 'playing guilty' is a big part of being a really good player."
Columbus promptly lost 6-3 after being outshot 33-21 through two periods.
Afterward, Tortorella told reporters, "I just don't think we were competitive enough."
Moan and groan
If the first-place Golden Knights continue this phenomenon and win the Stanley Cup to cement their status as the greatest expansion team in major sports history, most sportsbooks will be staring down the prospect of seven-figure losses.
"I had to double-check my computer screen to make sure I didn't make a mistake when looking it up," Murray said with a measured giggle. "It could be really bad."
Most sportsbooks are carrying liability on Stanley Cup wagers for the Knights that range from 300-to-1 to 500-to-1. Some bettors also backed them to win the Pacific Division at 200-to-1 odds.
"I figured the tickets were just souvenirs," MGM vice president of race and sports Jay Rood said, citing the popular novelty of saving the evidence of a preposterous wager to share with friends. "It's probably the most liability of any team [of any sport] during my 10 years here."
This vulnerability has forced oddsmakers into some uncomfortable exchanges with their own senior management. It is never fun to inform one's employer why they stand to lose a lot but only earn a little.
"I had to slowly explain to them that the Knights look good and, by the way, if they raise the Cup, then we'll lose six figures," Miller said. "They moan and groan."
To offset this remarkable risk, some sportsbooks might follow the Westgate's lead and offer the binary proposition of whether or not Vegas will win the Stanley Cup. This enables bettors to wager against the Golden Knights hoisting Lord Stanley and, more important, allows oddsmakers to minimize their liability. Plus, once the postseason arrives, they can tweak the betting line of each game and series to offset additional exposure.
"The NHL playoffs are not like basketball where the favorites typically advance," Murray said. "All the hockey series are very close. You have a lot of opportunity to maneuver."
Said Miller: "Let's face it. Every joint in town is going to be rooting against them."
Except for T-Mobile Arena. Time will tell which house is ultimately victorious.