Super Bowl weekend will be different in Las Vegas too, in this weird COVID-19 era

Frank Schwab
·5-min read

Every weekend is a party in Las Vegas. Even so, Super Bowl weekend stands out.

There are two events in which the sporting world and Las Vegas become intertwined: the first week of March Madness and Super Bowl weekend. Give many fans the choice, and they’d pick watching the games in Vegas over attending them in person. There’s more fun to be had in Sin City.

The Super Bowl parties everyone is used to in Las Vegas won’t be the same this year. Nobody knows what will happen for March Madness either.

Super Bowl Sunday will still be a good time in Las Vegas. There are endless betting possibilities at BetMGM for Super Bowl LV, and plenty of people will still make the trip. Just nothing like usual due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“My hunch is that, especially on strip properties, the social distancing will make it a very different Super Bowl experience,” said Gill Alexander, host of “A Numbers Game” on the Vegas-based VSiN network. “I think those in attendance will be as exuberant as ever but with sort of unspoken recognition that this isn’t quite the party we’ve come to know.”

This will be the coronavirus Super Bowl. In Tampa, there will be more cardboard cutouts in the stands than fans. It will make for a bit of an unusual and awkward broadcast, balancing a celebration of America’s biggest sporting event with the reality of a public health crisis that is still ongoing.

It will be a lot different in Las Vegas too.

Las Vegas during a pandemic

Visiting Las Vegas over the past 11 months has been unusual.

There’s still gambling, though with plastic separators between seats at the tables. Sportsbooks are still showing games, though the seats are spread out with six feet between them. Restaurants are open, but with restrictions on seating capacity. Nightclubs and big shows are dark. Masks, and constant reminders to keep your mask on indoors, are a way of life like they are in every other city.

The most obvious difference is the size of the crowd. That will be noticeable on Super Bowl weekend too.

“It’s pretty quiet,” said Jeff Stoneback, director of trading for MGM Resorts. “Probably the quietest Super Bowl I’ve ever encountered here.”

Hotel occupancy rates are generally above 90% in Las Vegas for Super Bowl weekend. Wynn CEO Matt Maddox recently said he was optimistic that hotel occupancy at the Wynn properties on Super Bowl weekend would reach 50% according to Yogonet. It hasn’t been that high since October.

There are still plenty of watch parties planned, but they will be scaled back.

Typically, MGM hosts a Super Bowl party for about 1,400 of its VIP players in a ballroom. This year, government regulations limit gatherings to 50 people. MGM will have four ballrooms with 50 people each.

“The atmosphere is not the same for 50 people as it is for 1,400 people, but it’s the Super Bowl and everyone is here to have a good time,” Stoneback said. “And there’s still a lot to bet on.”

There will still be many Super Bowl wagers, perhaps even a record amount. Sports betting is one of the few things in Las Vegas that didn’t take a hit with the pandemic.

Chairs are spaced out for social distancing at the BetMGM Sports Book at Bellagio Resort & Casino. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Chairs are spaced out for social distancing at the BetMGM Sports Book at Bellagio Resort & Casino. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Sportsbooks still had a big year

It has been a rough year for most businesses, but especially in a city that thrives on revelry.

According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Las Vegas had 1.247 million visitors in December, down 64% from December of 2019. For the year, there were 19 million visitors, down 55.2%. Hotel occupancy was down from 85.1% in December of 2019 to 30.9% this past December. Gross casino revenue on the strip was down 50.7%.

But the sportsbooks didn’t see a big drop once sports returned. According to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, sportsbooks had a profit of $238.45 million in 2020. That included a massive $61.8 million profit in November, a record month. In October, sportsbooks handled $659,222,395 in bets, an all-time high for one month according to USBets.com.

“Even though the bodies aren’t in town, the money is coming in,” Stoneback said.

There were two big reasons the sportsbook had a normal football season, in terms of bets and profit. Betting apps were huge. People who are uncomfortable going into a casino during a pandemic can just bet on their phone. Also, there are fewer options for visitors. People can’t drop money on a Cirque du Soleil show or bottle service at Hakkasan Nightclub, so they were putting it on the Green Bay Packers or Dallas Cowboys instead.

“It’s the only show in town,” Stoneback said.

Hopefully, this Super Bowl is a one-off. Perhaps with vaccines, MGM will be back to its huge VIP Super Bowl party next year and visitors will flow through Las Vegas all weekend. But it could take a while before Las Vegas is back to normal.

“I hope by March Madness things will be different,” Alexander said, “but only time will tell if that’s too soon, too.”

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