LAS VEGAS—Watching football in a high-end sportsbook here is no penny-ante game.
Seats at the massive areas called sportsbooks, where guests can watch and bet on major sporting events, can now cost as much as—and sometimes more than—seeing one in person.
Football, a big draw for Las Vegas visitors from fantasy draft parties through the Super Bowl, has fast become a luxury proposition in the gambling and entertainment mecca. Casinos are banking on a souped-up experience to pull in fans who can bet on sports in many parts of the U.S. now.
When I entered the Caesars Palace sportsbook early this past Sunday morning, the host put a bright yellow bracelet on my wrist and ushered me to my reserved seat on a temporary riser more than 30 yards from the early Packers-Giants game airing from London.
I was in the cheap seats, relatively speaking. My spot in the cordoned-off “bleacher” section, nine rows of movie-theater style seats with cupholders, cost $92, with two tickets for less-than-top-shelf beer, wine or well drinks included. For a lounge chair in the heart of the sportsbook, Caesars was asking $280 for a seat that also came with a few free drinks. For $550, fans got unlimited drinks in a VIP section.
Plenty of Las Vegas destinations are asking similar prices, and filling those seats. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas required a $400 minimum spend on food and drinks to reserve a tiny high-top table for four in its sportsbook on college football Saturday and $600 on NFL Sunday. The spots sold out both days. Mirage was selling VIP seats for $258 on Saturday and $323 on Sunday, open bar included.
Top sportsbooks use sophisticated reservation systems to maximize revenue, much as they do with nightclubs and pools. Prices change based on demand and, in some cases, time of purchase.
A Caesars spokeswoman says the sportsbook started charging for seats several years ago when demand outpaced the supply. The bleacher seats arrived after they proved popular this spring during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, given the sportsbook’s “compressed space,” she says.
One new downtown Las Vegas hotel, Circa, was designed around the idea that people like watching live sporting events together and will pay a premium to do it in the right setting.
Circa has a glittering three-story sportsbook, a sports bar it calls the world’s longest and Stadium Swim, a sprawling outdoor pool complex with a giant video screen aimed at sports fans. Chairs with five free drinks started at $275 last Sunday. Reserved couches required guests to spend a minimum of $1,000 on food and drink.
“They’re not really paying to watch football,” CEO and owner
says. “They’re paying for the experience.”
Las Vegas sportsbooks were seen as an amenity to get people in the door. Because of the unpredictability of games, casinos viewed sports betting as less of a sure thing than a bank of slot machines, says David Schwartz, a longtime professor and gambling historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Now, casinos sell football-watching as entertainment to monetize the space.
“It’s like a nightclub model, where access to the booth or the table is what you’re changing for, not so much the music,” Mr. Schwartz says.
Vegas travelers used to free seats for games are having sticker shock.
Jeff Shaw, a 40-year-old financial professional from Glendale, Ariz., flew to Las Vegas last weekend to see Notre Dame play Brigham Young at Allegiant Stadium with a group of friends. They paid $245 for good seats at the game.
When they looked for places to watch more football during the weekend, Mr. Shaw says Circa charged that much for a seat in its sportsbook that came with a few free drinks. They passed.
“$250 just to sit down in a chair, a little crazy,” he says. “Before you would just show up and sit down where you like, spend as much as you like or gamble as much as you like, but first come, first served.”
Heath Boyd desperately wanted to watch college football at a sportsbook on Saturday but gave up on finding an affordable seat after trying Bellagio, Cosmopolitan and Caesars Palace on a morning walk along the Las Vegas Strip.
The 30-year-old operations manager from Atlanta and his friends were stunned to find prices significantly higher than the $25 they paid in food and drinks to watch Thursday Night Football at the sportsbook at Resorts World just a couple of days before.
He ended up standing for free at the back of the Caesars sportsbook, but only lasted one game.
A spokeswoman for
parent of Bellagio, Cosmopolitan and several other properties on the Las Vegas Strip, said free seating is available at all its properties in Las Vegas on a first-come-first-served basis. Reservations are optional for those who want to snag a seat in advance, she said.
Most casinos offer some free seats, but you may have to turn up early. Mr. Stevens says lines start forming at Circa as early as 4 a.m. on weekends. I found plenty of free seats at the sprawling SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas just off the Strip on Saturday afternoon, and of course big gamblers get free access to the premium seats at most places.
“What’s your time worth?” Mr. Stevens says. “I’m also a guy that doesn’t understand
How do you wait in line at Costco for an hour and a half to get [expletive] gas? I don’t get that.”
Katie Karim, a 30-year-old human-resources manager from Houston, reserved one of Cosmopolitan’s high-top tables months ago to watch her Oklahoma Sooners and other college games last Saturday.
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She and her husband splurged on a sportsbook table last year to celebrate his 30th birthday and this year invited two couples to join them. They spent the required $600 on food and drinks between the six of them.
“We’re obsessed with college football, so we’re going to watch it anyway. You might as well have a reserved spot,” she says. “You can leave, you can go to the [gambling] tables, you can take a nap.”
The leaving part came in handy during the Oklahoma game. The University of Texas drubbed the Sooners, 49-0. The guys in the group left to play roulette while Ms. Karim and her friend, Robin Rainey Kiehl, ordered lunch for the table from Hattie B’s Hot Chicken.
“This is really hard to watch,” Ms. Rainey Kiehl said. “They needed to take a break.”
Write to Dawn Gilbertson at [email protected]
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