Vegas bets on lacrosse

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It’s an early Saturday morning in March, a giddy time for a college sports fan. At the Wynn Las Vegas race and sports book, the possibilities are endless.

Up on the board are games of varying magnitude — Penn State-Ohio State, Notre Dame-North Carolina and Georgetown-Syracuse. Highly regarded Duke is listed at 9-5 to win the national title.

And these particular lines had nothing to do with basketball.

Instead, they were another hint of how lacrosse is blossoming. A presence in America’s gambling mecca is an offshoot of a regular television schedule and the attention that the game commands on Memorial Day weekend.

The weekly odds are a seemingly innocuous development, born from the imagination of a Johns Hopkins grad and sports book employee who takes satisfaction in bringing a slice of his East Coast schooling to his job in the desert.

Yet as this weekend’s final four of the NCAA lacrosse tournament approaches, not everyone views a glitzy (though not large) spot in Vegas as the best trend for the traditionally tight-knit game.

It’s one of many developments — from increased external expectations to a recruiting process that begins earlier each year — that combine to worry veteran coaches who can sense outside forces prying greater control of their sport away from them.

It is also a jolt for those who remember when lacrosse occupied a minuscule niche in the sporting landscape.

“Very surprised,” said ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich, who played at Johns Hopkins from 1987 to 1990. “There have always been people on Wall Street and in Baltimore who have side bets for lunch on games, especially when their schools are involved. This is a little more severe than a turkey club.”

Or, as Duke coach John Danowski joked: “Awesome. We’ve made the big time.”

On the big board

Lacrosse can thank two men for the sport’s arrival in Sin City: John Avello and Greg Gorla.

Mr. Avello is the Wynn’s director of race and sports operations and is responsible for setting the lines at one of Vegas’ most popular and creative sports books.

Mr. Gorla possesses a lacrosse background. A New Jersey native, he knew virtually nothing about the game until he attended Johns Hopkins. The 2000 graduate played football for the Blue Jays but saw enough lacrosse to become hooked.

Now an administrative operator at the Wynn, he persuaded Mr. Avello to post lines for last year’s final four. There was plenty of interest, prompting the book to issue lines for weekend games this season.

“We have a big, giant electronic board,” Mr. Gorla said. “To see Hopkins up there is kind of interesting. We don’t play big time in other sports, but we do play big-time lacrosse. It makes me kind of smile.”

The anticipated demand arrived from an array of bettors — from curious out-of-towners to professional handicappers. Mr. Avello said the book ultimately “did quite well.”

“[Mr. Gorla] told us about the interest back East as far as the participation and the people that go to the games,” Mr. Avello said. “We thought if [we provided lines], there would be people who would watch it on TV and throw out a few dollars.”

It seems harmless enough — even amusing and perhaps gratifying to longtime lacrosse aficionados pleased someone is finally paying attention.

Yet, risks always are involved, and some in the game wonder whether their sport’s growing pains will mirror those of basketball, which endured betting scandals in the 1940s and 1950s as it grew in popularity.

“That was the Wild West, and we didn’t have the same institutional structures as today …,” said Howard Wasserman, a professor at the Florida International University College of Law and a specialist on sports law. “I think everybody is just more sophisticated. The athletes are more sophisticated, the coaches are more sophisticated, the regulators are more sophisticated.

“I wouldn’t expect there to be a greater concern of the gambling infiltrating into point shaving with this any more than any other sport.”

Mr. Gorla said sports books in Vegas are vigilant of shenanigans, particularly with a morass of regulations dictating rules for wagering on college athletics.

“There’s nothing to be scared about,” Mr. Avello said. “Nobody is going to get a big enough bet down to change the outcome. This is $300, $500, $1,000 bets, that type of thing. There’s nobody putting down big money on it. It’s more a lot of little bets than big bets.”

The new world

The temptations associated with gambling are nothing new in football and men’s basketball, sports that effectively bankroll most major athletic departments.

It’s a new twist in lacrosse, where injury reports typically are not guarded with a shroud of secrecy. Most players have a connection — a relative, a high school teammate, a guy met through a summer camp — to someone on just about every team they face.

“It’s a closed community,” Navy coach Richie Meade said. “There’s a lot of interaction between the guys on the teams. There’s a lot of interaction between the families. The thing with Las Vegas puts it in a whole other arena because there could be real money put on games, which then could compromise individuals.”

Mr. Meade said the first he heard of an organized effort to set lines on lacrosse games was in 2004, when his Midshipmen lost to Syracuse in the national final.

That game, like many others in recent years, was televised nationally. ESPN and ESPN2 both aired a regular season game this season, a first for both networks. ESPNU showed more than 40 games.

The television presence is a critical factor in lacrosse’s presence at the Wynn — and likely significant enough to have made its arrival inevitable somewhere in Vegas.

“If people bet on whatever the Super Bowl flip of the coin is, then I guess it doesn’t surprise me that they gamble on a college lacrosse game,” Georgetown coach Dave Urick said. “People have a lot of interests. It’s a little crazy as far as I’m concerned.”

But just how crazy? A decade ago, neither the prospect of drawing 50,000 to the semifinals in a football stadium nor the chance that even Hopkins could sign a deal with a nascent national cable network to broadcast all of its home games was even plausible.

Both have come to pass. Such interest leads to a plethora of possibilities, even if the sport’s vanguard would prefer to be selective of which developments they embrace.

“It opens up a Pandora’s box,” Mr. Kessenich said. “There can be nothing good that comes about. It is a sign of growth for the sport, but the negatives are obvious. You have a non-revenue sport, it’s scary. It’s a sign of legitimacy, but is it the sign you really want?”

At this point, lacrosse doesn’t appear to have a choice.

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