Jason Joyce has lived in Madison for over 30 years, starting as a student at UW-Madison. After working at Isthmus for 15 years, where he oversaw digital operations and wrote a sports column, he took over as news editor at The Capital Times in 2013.

golden nugget

The Golden Nugget's entrance on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS — The flight attendant was trying to win the crowd over early, and it worked.

"Lotta red on this plane!" she sang over the loudspeaker as we taxied along the runway at Dane County Regional Airport Sunday evening.

She also confirmed a prediction I had earlier this month: University of Wisconsin football fans looking to save a few bucks on airfare and maybe wager a few bucks on their favorite team(s) might opt to fly in to Las Vegas and drive to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Badgers fans' love of Sin City was evident in 2007, when many of them bought season football tickets from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas just so they could guarantee a seat for the Badgers' game there.

Tony Miller remembers the 2002 game between Wisconsin and UNLV very well. With the Badgers leading 27-7 late, the power at Sam Boyd Stadium went out, plunging the game into darkness and ending it with 7:41 on the clock. The NCAA recognized the Wisconsin victory, but the Vegas sports books did not and Wisconsin fans who bet on the game could not cash in.

“That was brutal for me!” Miller said Monday while sitting in the Golden Nugget Casino’s race and sports book in downtown Las Vegas, where he is the executive director. “Oh, I heard it from so many Wisconsin people: ‘You guys are cheaters!’”

Miller’s job includes determining the point spreads for pro and college football games and overseeing an operation that sets odds on just about any sporting contest imaginable.

He’s been in the business for over 40 years. After moving to Vegas to play football at UNLV, he started running bets between hotels and bookmakers before sports gambling was legal. He moved up the ladder and has been running the book at the Golden Nugget for 14 years.

One of the factors for bookmakers on that 2002 game was that so many Wisconsin fans flew out to Vegas and bet on the Badgers that they moved the spread from 3 or 4 points up to 7. If a lot of money is bet on one team, an oddsmaker will shift the spread to make it more attractive to bet on the other team in an attempt to keep the betting balanced. That way, the losers pay the winners and the house, which collects a 10% fee from losers, comes out ahead.

“I've been here at the Nugget for 14 years and we are a Wisconsin and Michigan house for some reason,” Miller said. “They travel en masse, especially when the games are here, and they move the spread. $10 bets, $30, $40, $50. They all add up until you’ve got to move the spread. You move it so far to where you get a sharp guy playing the number because it's a little too far, and he'll buy it back.”

Built in 1946 and anchoring the old-school casino scene on Fremont Street downtown, the Golden Nugget is one of the oldest casinos in Las Vegas, though it is continually adding new amenities, hotel towers, restaurants and other flourishes. According to the casino’s social media and marketing specialist, Courtney Carr, that translates into lots of return visits for people who may have played their first hand of blackjack at the Nugget 50 years ago.

“You’ve got a real mix of old and new downtown,” she told me as she led a tour that included traditional slot machines and table games, as well as a $30 million pool built around a 200,000-gallon shark aquarium with a waterslide tube running through it.

The sports book itself is run out of a comfortable room with leather seats parked in front of massive TVs and tote boards indicating the lines on every NBA, NHL and NFL game, along with every college bowl game. It’s built for sports fans who want to make a few “investments” on games and then watch how things turn out alongside fellow gamblers.

On Sunday night, that meant watching with glee or agony as the Seattle Seahawks came within inches of scoring a last-second go-ahead touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers, who entered the game as 3.5-point favorites. San Francisco prevailed, 26-21, thereby covering the spread. But it was close. And pretty exciting for people who might not otherwise care about those two teams.

“It affects the spread and whether you're collecting or not, right?” Miller said. “I mean, half the people want the touchdown, the other people wanted a stop, so half are happy, half are ticked off and it's amazing.”

That excitement -- and the taxable revenue that goes along with it -- has led to the recent expansion of sports betting to states other than Nevada. Legal sports books are operating in 13 states, including Iowa, and six other states are moving quickly in that direction, including Illinois and Michigan.

Does that worry guys like Miller?

“We hope it goes legal in 50 states,” he said. “People are coming in now who are betting back home and they’re more knowledgeable. They come up to my counter and they know what they're doing. They know how to bet and it helps us out a lot. It hurts our handle [total dollars bet]. But you know what? Vegas is still Vegas. We still have the hotels. We still have the shows. We've still got the glitz and glamour.”

And soon, Vegas will have an actual NFL team of its own. Right across Interstate 15 from the Strip, a sleek, black football stadium known by locals as the “Death Star” is taking shape. The facility will house the relocating Las Vegas Raiders starting next August. NFL commissioners avoided Vegas for decades, fearful of getting mixed up in allegations of rigged outcomes and compromised players.

All of this has observers wondering how long it will be before sports fans will be able to place bets right at stadiums and arenas, as they do in Europe. The momentum toward legitimacy is helped by having media figures like ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt and NBC’s Al Michaels openly discuss gambling ramifications in their commentary.

Miller isn’t worried about the loss of any outlaw mystique that gambling once had. He’s embracing the new world.

“A whole new thing for me is that now I have guys who call me from around the country,” Miller said. “I've been on ESPN, I've been on Fox Sports, NBC Sports, talking about points, crazy games and all sorts of things and it's just opened up a whole new aspect of the industry.”

So what about the Rose Bowl, though? What does Miller think about the Badgers? They’re favored, but the spread has been moving between 2.5 and 3 points.

“I think they're a great bowl team and I love their running game. And I just think it's gonna be a nice grind-out game for them and I like them to cover the number. I really do,” he said. “I said that from the beginning.”

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