In their opening game on Sunday, the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces were defeated 101-65 by the Connecticut Sun—so losers both straight up and against the spread, which set the Sun as an 18.5-point favorite before tipoff.
The team members probably weren't the only ones lamenting the outcome, though (which, to be fair, was not tremendously hard to predict, given that three of the Aces' best players were overseas for the start of the season). Any Nevadans who had money on their new home team via their local sportsbook also had a rough start to the season.
On the other hand, a smart gambler might have looked at the night's other big game, the Los Angeles Sparks at the Minnesota Lynx, and seen the Sparks getting unusually favorable odds for a rivalry game between evenly matched opponents *thanks to star Candace Parker being benched with a minor back injury*. If so, they could have made $280 on a $100 bet when the Sparks won on a buzzer-beater.
Gambling on women's sports has never been a mainstream enterprise, one side effect of their outsider status in sports media and network broadcasting. "Generally, we don't have a big menu of women's sports," says Jay Rood, vice president of race and sportsbook operations for MGM Resorts International. "Tennis and golf have dedicated media coverage so we get average betting on them, whereas the WNBA is a fairly niche spot for wagering and tends to draw a lot of the sharps [professional gamblers]."
Enter the Las Vegas Aces, formerly the San Antonio Stars, which were bought by MGM Resorts last year and will play at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Their home on the Strip means potential fans—even those who have never watched women play basketball at any level—can invest in the game they're about to see, which they'll be more incentivized to do thanks to little competition in the way of local pro sports besides the ascendant Las Vegas Golden Knights. It's an unprecedented opportunity to connect women's sports with the world of sports betting, which is potentially advantageous both for the Aces and the WNBA as a whole.
"I'm hoping that will drive attendance, because you're not going to be able to have that experience anywhere else," says Rood. Notably, fans won't be able to bet on home or away Aces games at the Mandalay Bay or any other MGM sportsbook. But any non-MGM line is fair game, and Rood sees the potential for the WNBA to get the gambling-induced bump Vegas brings to other sports.
"When NASCAR comes to town, for example, we write almost 10 times what we normally do on a regular NASCAR weekend," Rood adds. "We're going to be missing out on a little bit of that, but hopefully that angle takes hold, my cohorts around town start booking them, the team wins and they lose some money," he jokes.
Sports gambling, already a growing industry in Nevada (the only place in the U.S. where it's legal), is primed to explode thanks to last week's Supreme Court decision to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act—the federal law that banned sports gambling outside Nevada. Per Ryan Roberberg in a special for ESPN.com, legislators in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Mississippi have already passed preliminary sports gambling bills and could officially permit sports gambling before the end of 2018. Both gambling and fantasy sports are already boons for leagues looking to increase fan engagement, and as they expand, those charged with promoting women's sports are looking to get in on the action. Last year, the WNBA partnered with FanDuel to make daily fantasy available for the first time.
"It is abundantly clear that there is incredible demand in this space," said WNBA president Lisa Borders recently of the FanDuel partnership on The Sports Techie Podcast. "We saw some 2.2 million entries. FanDuel is bringing a new audience to the W, and that engagement validates how big we are and how fast we are growing."
Gambling is one more potential answer to the unfortunately evergreen question of how to get consistent support for women's basketball from fans and media. Toward the end of the team's 15 years in San Antonio, attendance wavered: In 2017, it drew the 10th-most fans out of the league's 12 teams, with an average of 6,386 fans per game. Tougher to overcome, though, was the fact that the team won fewer than a quarter of its games three seasons in a row, thanks in part to perceived neglect by the Spurs front office. Still, the decision to sell the team came as a shock to the players—even as it was billed as a win by the league.
"Having the opportunity for a franchise to play in such an outstanding market as Las Vegas and partner with an owner and operator like the MGM Resorts International is amazing for us," said MGM Resorts chief experience and marketing officer Lilian Tomovich shortly after the move was announced, citing high basketball ratings in Las Vegas and the success of the NBA Summer League as evidence that the city would be the ideal home for the team.
Though the ease with which new fans can place bets is not something the Aces or the WNBA is eager to discuss explicitly, the potential impact is enormous. Tourists and locals alike now have one more entry point to not just become Aces fans but also become fans of women's basketball as a whole—visitors who decide to go to an Aces game in part because it's a sport they can both bet on and watch will inevitably come away with a new understanding of women's basketball. "The tourists are going to really help grow the game," says Aces point guard Moriah Jefferson. "They'll see a game, get hooked and tell somebody else about it."
"Getting a team in Vegas means we'll get more play on the WNBA," says Robert Walker, the director of sportsbook operations for USBookmaking. "Then, other books will start to put up more college games."
There's no better example of this phenomenon than the Stanley Cup Finals-bound Golden Knights, who've become the city's biggest sports story since the franchise opened last year—and an unlikely cash infusion for local sportsbooks.
"People like to bet on games they can go to," says Walker. "If you put $10 on a game, you become a fan. You have a rooting interest in the game." In the 1990s, he was among the first oddsmakers to set lines on women's basketball while he was running sportsbooks around the Strip—before the WNBA even existed. He thought women's basketball would become ubiquitous within a decade; though it's not yet, Walker holds out hope.
"Hockey is really a fourth-tier sport, but that's not true in Vegas anymore," he says. "Just based on the Knights, our hockey handles went through the roof—I think the same thing will happen with the Aces, to a smaller extent. I initially said nobody's going to care about the Knights now that the Aces are here, but I did not anticipate the Knights doing what they're doing."
As far as building a fanbase, the Golden Knights have set an inspiring-yet-tricky precedent for the Aces—their success would be nearly impossible to replicate, but they're still hopeful the city's current sports fervor will translate to the women's game.
"A lot of people didn't know anything about hockey before the team came, and now they're showing up and supporting," says Jefferson, who arrived in Vegas a few months before the rest of her teammates to do community outreach—and watched the Knights beat the San Jose Sharks 7-0 in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. "They made it a little harder for us coming out the way they did, making the playoffs and killing everybody," she adds, laughing. "But we're going to play hard, do our best and have fun." Jefferson was the second overall pick in 2016; her teammates, Kelsey Plum (2017) and A'ja Wilson (2018), both went first. The team is now coached by three-time WNBA champion Bill Laimbeer—the talent is there to make the season exciting, even if the Aces can't top the Knights' Cinderella story.
The main reason women's sports haven't already become a sportsbook fixture is simple: television. "Men's sports tend to fall in your lap from a network perspective," says Rood. "We see that a lot on this side of the counter. Even if the network game is the [Cleveland] Browns and [New York] Jets while Jacksonville versus Tampa Bay is blacked out, we'll see a lot of bets coming in on the Browns and Jets. People want to watch what they wager on."
That inaccessibility—few nationally televised games and less-than-adequate media coverage—is a large part of what has historically made betting on the WNBA the exclusive province of experts. "The [Seattle] Storm and [Connecticut] Sun get really good coverage, and the rest of the teams are more hit and miss," says Edward Golden, owner of handicapping service Right Angle Sports. Golden is one of many pros who turn to the WNBA for favorable odds—the lack of intel and minimal action mean that bookies are less inclined to invest much time in setting the lines. But he says slowly that's changing, thanks in large part to technology.
"We've always liked doing small markets and leagues that aren't getting a lot of attention, and the WNBA definitely fits that," he adds. "It hasn't been that popular, but it's gotten better since the advent of Twitter. Plus, with the internet, you can watch all the game film, and that's really where we get most of our information."
Between the move to a larger market and the added incentive of accessible gambling, the odds for success are in the Aces' favor (pun intended)—what remains to be seen is how their presence in Vegas impacts the relationship between gambling and women's sports as a whole. Though placing bets is hardly the only thing that could help take the sport mainstream, it will only become more important as state laws change to reflect the new Supreme Court decision.
"I maintain that eventually women's basketball will be a monster sport," says Walker. "People will get past the stigma of women's sports, and I just feel sorry for the ones who don't take the time to check it out. It's a much better product, in my mind, than a lot of the sports we book right now—it's the next market. If you look at NASCAR, it kind of peaked and it's on a downturn. I envision a future, within the next year, where we're booking five to 10 women's games every day during the college basketball season—but I've been wrong before. "
For head coach Bill Laimbeer, the equation for helping the Aces stick is much more straightforward. "We're going to put on a good show," he says. "After all, it is Las Vegas."