It’s always fun to discover a new subculture of sports, a world I know little about nestled within a world I often think I know too much about. When I find them, I love spending time in them, exploring them, researching their culture and learning their language … all in the name of job research. Last weekend, that happened in the most unlikely of places: Las Vegas.
My friend and ESPN Mag editor Chad Millman was sitting on a gambling panel hosted by ESPN Insider at a bar inside Caesar’s Palace Wednesday night, so I drove to Sin City to check it out. Along with Vegas insider Alan Boston, Chad was offering advice about how to place smarter bets on the college basketball tournament, which was starting the next day.
Now, betting–and more specifically, betting on sports–is certainly a world I was aware existed. I’ve dropped by the sports book on trips to Vegas and placed a pre-season bet on my favorite teams to win their respected championship and I read Chad’s column to better understand what is going on inside the minds of oddsmakers when they set the lines. But what I didn’t realize was the mass bachelor party-style pilgrimages groups of men make to Vegas for the first four days of the NCAA basketball tournament every year. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a shockingly lopsided man-to-woman ratio in Sin City. At that Wednesday night event, my colleague Stacey Pressman and I were the only women in the room. (You’d think that would be a good thing, but let’s be honest, this was not a room full of People‘s Sexiest Bachelors.)
At first, I found that hard to believe. (The lack of women, that is, not the lack of potential mates at a sports betting conference.) Being a woman who is passionate about sports and writes about them for a living, I am never “OMG-so surprised!” when an article “informs” me that “Women Like Football!” or “40% of sports fans are women!” In my view of the world, women love sports, women follow sports, women are smart about sports, play sports, can talk sports and are passionate about the teams they love.
But they don’t bet on sports. Not much, anyway. What I was witnessing in Vegas was the disconnect between being a female sports fan and being a female sports fan who bets on sports. They simply don’t seem to exist. The editor of ESPN Insider told me that of the more than 600,000 people who subscribe to that section of the ESPN.com website–which is filled with the type of stats, analysis and rumors most fans use to help them bet on sports or compete in fantasy leagues–98.5% of them are men.
At the Wynn, I spent some time with longtime Vegas oddsmaker Johnny Avello (the current oddsmaker at the Wynn), and he told me that in his experience, women mostly bet on the NFL or on their favorite college football teams, but they don’t show up for the NCAA tournament because they’re less inclined than their male counterparts to sit in front of TV screens all day watching and betting on game after game after game … knowing it’s sunny and beautiful outside and they are wasting the day–and possibly that week’s paycheck–inside a smokey casino. That could sound sexist, but looking around at the hundreds of men and one or two women in the Wynn Sports Book at that moment, I knew he was right.
I watched every game those first two days–all 32–and I had a fantastic time. I love college basketball and I really love tournament time. I loved talking smack during the games that mattered to each of us, drinking beer with my friends and (over)analyzing the match-ups. I learned a lot about betting and I left thinking about coming back next year with a group of girlfriends and a few hundred dollars to test my skills against Lady Luck. But, looking back, I don’t know if I’ll follow through. I didn’t bet on a single dollar on this trip, even though I filled out a bracket that is still very much in tact heading into the Sweet 16. I’d listened to the same advice Wednesday night, I knew the match-ups and I had strong feelings about a lot of the lines. But when it came down to it, I realized I’m happier spending the same amount of money my (male) friends were betting on the games on great meals, a few hands of Poker and a trip to the spa.
I guess therein lies the disconnect.