Back in the September of his years, Frank Sinatra would take the mic and command this little lounge stage. Still the headliner of all headliners at The Sands, four miles down The Strip, Sinatra would escape to this neighborhood joint, the Italian American Social Club, to sing for his supper, crooning for an audience of made men, undercover feds and other sharp-dressed, high-rolling locals of iconic Las Vegas.
Forty years later, pictures of Sinatra and the Rat Pack still hang on the walls at the IASC. Although the crowd remains local, they’re far more casual and far less unnerving. And forget about hearing an impromptu set from the likes of Ol’ Blue Eyes, you’re much more likely to catch Jerry Tiffe, aka The Last Lounge Singer in Vegas.
To the side of the stage, tucked inside a dining area, a tight-knit table enjoys one of their regular meals together, family-style, of course. They laugh as a colleague explains how a last-second fumble return for a touchdown early in the day cost his bottom line six figures. They chuckle at his misery, because, at this point, these guys really have heard it all.
This isn’t your typical group of gamblers; they’re bookmakers. Odds are, if you’ve placed a legal bet in the U.S. in the past five decades, one of the men sitting at this round table had a hand in it. Gray-haired and grizzled, they’re in their 60s and 70s with attires ranging from sports coat and slacks to white sweatshirt and jeans. They’ve worked classic spots like the Stardust, the old Las Vegas Hilton and the Mirage, making book on historic fights from Hagler-Hearns to Mayweather-McGregor, and on dozens of Super Bowls. Some have been taking bets in Vegas since Sinatra was up on that stage.
And they’ve never felt more threatened than they do right now.
For years, table talk has been as much about grandkids winning trophies as it has been about action moving the line. But lately the tone has abruptly changed whenever conversation shifts to the future. Three time zones to the east, the Supreme Court of the United States is waiting to rule on the Las Vegas bookmakers’ monopoly over legal American sports betting.
As early as March 5 or as late as June 29, the court will release its decision. At stake: Whether the federal government can retain the right to legislate against sports wagering or if individual states can legalize sports books. The SCOTUS ruling could upend everything for the sportsbooks in Vegas.
Everyone at the supper table first came to town during a 10-year span starting in the mid-’70s. The charismatic Jimmy Vaccaro, short, with thick gray hair, is the senior statesman. In January 1975, he caught a lift from his brother Sonny to the Pittsburgh airport and headed to the desert. Sonny went on to become a prominent sports marketing executive; Jimmy became America’s bookmaker, even appearing on “The Simpsons” to break down the odds on who shot Mr. Burns. Art Manteris and Chris Andrews, two fun-loving Greek cousins from Pittsburgh, knew Vaccaro from back east and showed up a few years later. Their uncle “Pittsburgh” Jack Franzi, a renowned bettor at the time, provided them entry into the business, if only on the other side of the counter, trying to beat him. Vic Salerno, a dentist by trade, got to town around the same time to get into the bookmaking business. Vinny Magliulo and Johnny Avello, a pair of slender New Yorkers, relocated to Sin City shortly after. And they’ve all been dining together regularly ever since. Looking around the table, it’s easy to wonder how much longer this group can hold it together.
“I am worried,” says Manteris. “I have a growing list of concerns.”
His cousin, Chris, is more frank.
“Now that it’s on the verge of maybe happening,” Andrews says, “we just hope they don’t f— it up. I don’t want to see a good thing go by the wayside here.”
Interpreting the law, by the book
The temperature is in the 30s and dropping when the line begins to form in front of the Supreme Court at 3 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 4. A rag-tag bunch is at the front, some still in pajamas, one sporting a big, puffy Washington Redskins coat. Further down the sidewalk, people are bundled up in sleeping bags. They’ve been here for days, paid to hold spots for others interested in a gay rights case on Tuesday’s docket.
Today, though, will be sports betting’s day in court.
The NCAA and four professional sports leagues are suing to stop New Jersey from allowing sports betting in Atlantic City and at the state’s racetracks. The case has been open for five years and has far-reaching impact beyond sports betting. The argument over states’ rights and federal power heard here today could affect a wider range of issues that are also governed by both states and D.C., like marijuana legalization, nuclear waste disposal and gun control.
By 8 a.m., the pajama crew and Redskins fan have been compensated and replaced by men in suits, overcoats and scarves. Attorneys and politicians fill out the line that stretches down the steps, almost onto the sidewalk, a longer line than your normal case. Not everyone will get in.
Up the grand steps, through the pillars and inside the land’s highest court, interested parties pass through metal detectors and wait for approval from the guards. Guides lead attorneys, law students, daily fantasy operators, litigants and reporters through the marble hallways. Every media seat is reserved, an occurrence only at cases of high interest.
At 10 a.m., everyone is seated in the courtroom. Dan Halem, chief legal officer for Major League Baseball, is down front on the left side facing the justices. Nearby, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie turns for a quick word with an associate before oral arguments begin over whether the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) goes too far and if it forces states to maintain laws that voters no longer support.
On Nov. 8, 2011, 63.9 percent New Jersey voters backed “Public Question 1,” which would allow the legislature to legalize sports betting. Within two weeks, a bill was introduced. It quickly moved through the legislature and was signed by Christie on Jan. 17, 2012. The following August, the major American sports leagues, with the NCAA as lead plaintiff, filed suit, claiming that they would suffer irreparable harm to the integrity of the games if sports betting were permitted in New Jersey.
Now, five years later, as former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement argues for the leagues in front of the Supreme Court, he never once utters the word “integrity.” Another former U.S. Solicitor General, Ted Olson, represents New Jersey and closes the arguments by questioning the federal government’s accountability in forcing states to keep banning sports betting. “The structure is important to the liberty of the citizens,” Olson argues. “And this statute violates that ordained structure.”
Nearly 2,500 miles to the west, back in Las Vegas, the bookmakers focus on another bench dressed in black. The Cincinnati Bengals are 4.5-point home underdogs against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night. Sunday’s NFL results were mediocre for the books, and to make matters worse, the NHL’s red-hot Vegas Golden Knights won again. They could use a Bengals upset. For now, the bookmakers don’t have time to worry about D.C.
But the next morning, media reports from outlets covering the case for years and from reporters exclusively on the Supreme Court beat indicate a New Jersey win — an overwhelming consensus that gets the bookmakers’ attention. They don’t know what impact the ruling will have, but they do know that the status quo is pretty sweet.
“I don’t think some of the realities of the business are being discussed enough,” says Manteris, vice president of race and sports for Station Casinos, the day after the oral arguments. “I am very worried about Nevada, because I’ve spent a career helping to build the Nevada industry. And we’ve built a great business. Maintaining the status quo is not necessarily a bad thing.”
The last Super Sunday?
The closer kickoff gets, the more Manteris paces in and out of his private office behind the sportsbook. It’s Super Bowl Sunday, a few hours before the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles go at it. This could be Las Vegas’ last Super Bowl in complete control of legal American sports betting.
On the same day, a Washington lobbying group, the American Gaming Association (AGA), is launching a marketing campaign to “highlight the need to end the federal ban on sports betting.” Promotional materials are placed on tables at D.C. sports bars, and large-scale ads run at Capital One Arena, where the Golden Knights are taking on the Capitals.
The AGA reasons that Nevada’s gaming industry should embrace the change that undoubtedly hangs in the air. Sin City has been in this position before, as casino and tribal gaming spread across the nation. “The experience we’ve all seen in recent history is that, as gaming expands around the country, Nevada strengthens,” says Geoff Freeman, CEO and president of the AGA. “With that said, I think we can all agree that the future of sports betting looks different than what sports betting looks like in Nevada today.”
Manteris, trim and wearing a checkered shirt, slacks and a sportcoat, snacks when he sweats games, and right now he’s popping Tostitos into his mouth. His Super Bowl spread, a banquet table covered in a football field tablecloth, is packed with food, including a crock pot of meatballs provided by one of his assistants. “If I eat one of the dishes someone brings,” he says, “I feel like I have to try them all.”
Seated behind his desk, Manteris focuses on computer screens that show where he stands on the game. Three hours before kickoff, he decides to move the Super Bowl point spread up: “Go to 4 and half,” he tells a bookmanager and then heads out front. UFC president Dana White is at the betting counter wearing a red Patriots golf shirt, and the line behind him is 100 deep, stretching all the way down the side of the deli next door. There are even more people in an upstairs ballroom at three private viewing parties. Super Bowl Sunday is a big deal — it packs the place.
Back in his office, Manteris points to the Las Vegas Review-Journal on the corner of his desk. Reporting on Nevada’s sports wagering revenue of $248 million for 2017, the headline reads: “Record haul for state sports book.” Manteris is hoping to extend the trend today, and he likes his position. A big bettor has laid a bad price on the Eagles’ money line, and two other high-rollers have inquired about placing big wagers on the game. Manteris feels good, even though the action is still lopsided on underdog Philadelphia.
“I love where I’m at,” he says. “Give me a 2-to-1 favorite at even-money, and I’ll take that any day.”
On one office wall, a pair of Sugar Ray Leonard’s boxing gloves hang in a frame. The opposite wall, the one to his right, separates him from a mob of fully invested football fans, chins up, yelling and cursing at the glorious high-definition screens that stretch from one side of the sports book to the other. In a way, that wall is symbolic of the federal law that both protects the Vegas status quo but also prevents Manteris and friends from tapping into the larger American sports betting populace — a massive crowd that has turned to the black market.
Illegal books took off after PASPA was put in place a quarter century ago and now serve millions of bettors. Some analysts say hundreds of billions are bet on the black market. By comparison, Nevada’s market is closing in on $5 billion, up from $1.8 billion when PASPA was enacted in 1992.
Much as the prohibition of alcohol didn’t end drinking, PASPA (which grandfathered in Nevada’s sportsbooks) hasn’t stopped Americans from betting on sports. Costa Rica-based Sportsbookreview.com monitors 108 online sportsbooks that serve the U.S. The stereotypical neighborhood bookies are still in business, too. They’ve largely moved out of phone rooms and to the internet, operating on credit and handling payment transactions person-to-person. Americans have no shortage of betting options.
The black market has frustrated Manteris for decades, but he’ll stress about it another day. Right now, he’s behind the wall, sweating a wild fourth quarter. He needs the Patriots and the under for a big decision. The ball isn’t bouncing his way.
“When I need the Patriots, they lose,” he laments. “And when I don’t — like normal — they win. I can never beat the Patriots.”
The Eagles win 41-33. Manteris’ book takes a big hit.
“Boy, oh, boy,” he says.
Running the numbers
The next day, Nevada Gaming Control releases the final numbers: $158.4 million has been bet on Super Bowl LII, by far the most ever. The state’s books, however, won just $1.1 million, the smallest take since 2011. They didn’t lose, though, and rarely do. In fact, Nevada sportsbooks haven’t had a losing month since July 2013.
“It’s nice having the monopoly here, but that’s my opinion,” says Michael Gaughan, a longtime casino owner who does not have a significant presence outside of Nevada.
Gaughan opened his first casino in the late 1970s, after learning the business from his father, Jackie, a Vegas gaming pioneer, who’s said to have once owned 25 percent of the downtown real estate. Now 74, Gaughan owns the South Point, an off-the-Strip casino that opened in 2005. Among its amenities, the South Point features a 64-lane bowling alley, an equestrian center that hosted this year’s National Finals Rodeo and a 24-hour sportsbook run by Vegas veterans Vaccaro and Andrews.
Vaccaro is full of stories. One of his favorites dates back four decades, when he was working for Gaughan as a blackjack dealer at the Royal Inn. “Michael came up to me and asked if I knew how to run a sportsbook,” Vaccaro says. “I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Neither do I. We’ll start it together.'”
Gaughan has had a book ever since, but it doesn’t make him a ton of money. That’s true for all Las Vegas casinos: Sports betting is an amenity, not a major source of revenue; it’s an attraction to bring guests to the property, where they can wine and dine and partake in games with greater house edges than sports betting.
In a way, sports betting has divided Las Vegas. The larger companies with presences in other states, such as MGM, Caesars, William Hill and Wynn, support expanded legalization, while companies limited to Nevada, such as South Point and Station Casinos, warn caution. “I just think it’s better for the entire state if we were the only one with [sports betting],” Gaughan says. “Besides the sports handle, it also brings a lot of people to town. But I’m out of the old school.”
On average, sports betting accounts for about 2 percent of the state’s overall gaming win, according to UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research. In 2017, Nevada sportsbooks contributed more than $248 million to the state’s $11.5 billion gaming win.
“Yeah, that’s tiny,” says Richie Baccellieri, a longtime bookmaker and industry consultant, “but that’s not giving enough credit to the contribution it makes to other parts of the casino. You may not get a lot from the guy sitting in the book for a three-hour ballgame, but, oh by the way, his wife’s out playing slots.”
Last year, Nevada operators cleared $3.1 billion on penny slots. In blackjack, they made $1.2 billion, 14.8 percent of the amount wagered. In sports betting, the win percentage drops to a slim 5.5 percent margin. So, states looking to reap a similar profit would be wise to adopt Nevada’s industry friendly tiered tax system on sports winnings. Taxes top out at 6.75 percent of the sports betting win (plus the 0.25-percent federal excise tax on the amount bet, the handle). Those rates are in sharp contrast to what is being proposed in other states. Pennsylvania has passed legislation to allow sports betting that includes an effective 36 percent tax rate on sports betting revenue.
“Everyone thinks we print money, but we work on the smallest margins,” says Ed Malinowski, a 20-year veteran bookmaker, now the sportsbook director at the Stratosphere. “I never thought in my position that I’d be worrying about how much I pay for golf pencils. It’s ridiculous, but those are the things I have to keep my eye on, because it all hits the bottom line.”
Still, bookmakers may have bigger concerns than greedy legislators. Even hungrier, more influential players are pulling up to the table — the sports leagues.
The line on integrity
NBA commissioner Adam Silver started all this. He was the first league executive to say publicly that forcing bettors to the black market may not be the best way to protect the integrity of the games. In the fall of 2014, Silver abruptly changed direction just weeks after the NBA and other leagues filed suit to stop New Jersey’s sports betting efforts. Silver, whose league took an equity position in daily fantasy sports operator FanDuel, penned an op-ed in The New York Times, calling on Congress to give states a path to legalize sports betting.
It was a highlight-reel, reverse pivot for the NBA, deftly timed and executed by Silver less than a year into his tenure and less than a decade since the league’s gambling scandal involving referee Tim Donaghy. Silver even openly acknowledged the potential financial benefits legalized sports betting could provide to the league.
Just weeks ago, on Jan. 24, the NBA laid out exactly what it has in mind — a cut of the action. Under the NBA’s blueprint, also supported by Major League Baseball, bookmakers would pay 1 percent of the amount bet on league events. The leagues would also have the right to restrict certain types of bets and perhaps force operators to pay for official league data to grade wagers.
“The legislation should recognize that sports leagues provide the foundation for sports betting,” NBA senior vice president Dan Spillane told a New York State Senate committee, “while bearing the risks that sports betting imposes, even when regulated. Without our games and fans, there could be no sports betting.”
“Are they going to retroactively pay us for protecting their integrity for the past 40 years?” quips Salerno, who oversaw the first computerized book in Vegas and now runs USFantasy.
Meanwhile, Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, began meeting with horse racing officials this summer to examine how the Interstate Horseracing Act divides revenue between tracks, horsemen associations and the states.
“As an operator, when you go back to the small margins, there’s not a lot to go around here,” says Jay Kornegay, executive director for the Westgate SuperBook. “I don’t want it to become the horse racing industry, where everyone takes too much out of the pot. What ends up happening is the consumer ends up paying for it.”
As pro leagues become active players, the NCAA remains on the sidelines. In December, USA Today reported that NCAA president Mark Emmert posited a “carve-out” to prohibit betting on college sports if gambling is legalized nationwide. College football and basketball represent more than $1 billion to the Vegas books annually, about 22 percent of the handle.
“Do [the leagues] deserve a piece of the action? I don’t believe that’s the approach,” says Avello, who runs the book for Wynn Resorts. “Is there is an opportunity for cross-marketing? Yes, I believe there is.”
Manteris, who worked for the NBA as a paid consultant in the 2000s, believes sports and gaming need a clear separation. “Both industries have thrived while keeping some distance,” Manteris says. “Personally, I cringe when I see European soccer players wearing gaming company logos on their jerseys. That is a little close for comfort in my view.”
The book’s next chapter
The Italian American Club still sits on Sahara Avenue, less than two miles off The Strip. Sausage remains the specialty. The atmosphere feels authentic, not forced, not over the top. A legitimate piece of the town’s past, an appropriate setting for the bookmakers to fret about their future.
When the landscape first started to shift, most of these bookmakers openly rooted for New Jersey. The pros of legalization outweighed the cons for their industry, they thought. And, this being Vegas, spite also played a role. The Garden State was trying to stick it to the leagues, which had long denigrated Las Vegas, looking down on sports betting in general with moral indignation. “I wouldn’t put a team in Las Vegas, just because I don’t want our people around that kind of atmosphere,” former MLB commissioner Bud Selig once said.
Legalization, in a way, would be a big middle finger to all that rhetoric for the bookmakers. And not everyone believes it will harm Las Vegas. An analysis by research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming projected a positive or, at worst, neutral impact on Nevada. However, a doomsday scenario does exist: The influential leagues could convince Congress that a new federal sports betting law is needed, one with an integrity fee, potentially a prohibition on betting on college sports and one that would force Nevada to comply with the new rules. And that possibility has long since overshadowed the free-roll feel the bookmakers had in initially supporting New Jersey — back when no one really thought they could pull it off.
But now, New Jersey looks like a favorite. And for the men who’ve been at the controls of legal sports betting in the U.S. for decades, the new topic at the supper table is whether to retire or hold on to see what opportunities arise. There is no clear line: For the first time, the direction of their industry is out of their hands, the leagues are coming for a cut of the business, and politicians are just starting to smell the money.
All bets are off.