On a weekend with bowl games and a full NFL slate, college basketball shined in Las Vegas, where Kentucky and North Carolina put on a show Saturday at T-Mobile Arena.
An overflow crowd of 19,298 packed into the new arena, which is located just off the Las Vegas Strip, between New York New York and the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino. It is co-owned and operated by MGM Resorts International, which runs one of Nevada's largest sportsbooks.
This weekend, the number of bets on Kentucky-North Carolina was comparable to or greater than the number of bets on any of Sunday's NFL games, according to MGM vice president of race and sports Jay Rood. MGM operates the sportsbooks at 10 locations in Las Vegas.
"It was just a ton of action, a ton of tickets," Rood said.
The action was almost all small $10 and $20 bets, but there were a lot of individual tickets written on Kentucky-North Carolina. Rood has seen similar increases in betting action on the Pac-12 tournament, which was has been played at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas since 2013. The tournament moves to T-Mobile Arena in 2017.
"The Pac-12 tournament, when it was in Anaheim, it was a nonevent [for the sportsbook]," Rood said. "Now that it's here at the MGM Grand, it's a monster event from a handle standpoint for us. I don't know if that translates to the rest of the city, but at least for MGM Resorts it does."
Jason Simbal, vice president of sportsbook operator CG Technology, said only the NFL game between the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets and two bowl games, including the Las Vegas Bowl between Houston and San Diego State, generated more betting handle than Kentucky-North Carolina on Saturday.
"We did more money on that than any NBA [game]," Simbal said. "It was a really, really heavily bet game for us."
Kentucky freshman star Malik Monk scored 47 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer, in a thrilling 103-100 victory over the Tar Heels in the second game of a Saturday doubleheader. The Wildcats were 1-point favorites. UCLA beat Ohio State 86-73 as an 8.5-point favorite in the opener.
Ed Salmons, who oversees college basketball odds at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, attended both games and said the atmosphere was phenomenal -- and not because everyone was only cheering for their bet.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman expressed concerns in the past that fans would stop rooting for their favorite teams and root for their betting interests if sports betting were legalized outside of Nevada. The NHL has since placed a franchise in Las Vegas. The Vegas Golden Knights will call T-Mobile Arena home beginning in 2017.
Working in a sportsbook, Salmons is used to hearing bettors cheer for random events not always directly associated with the outcome of the game, but he didn't hear much of it Saturday.
"I mean, people betting serious money on the game, where they care that much more about the spread than the game, you're probably talking less than 1 percent of the people who attend," Salmons said. "It doesn't matter. It's immaterial."
Salmons did come away impressed by UCLA. Last April, he opened the Bruins as 80-1 long shots to win the national championship at the SuperBook. The SuperBook took a $600 bet on the Bruins when they were 80-1.
Salmons now has UCLA listed at 7-1.