Bargain football getaways at Vegas parlors

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LAS VEGAS -- So you weren't able to snag one of those highly sought-after, $1,000 package deals to the Super Bowl, or an equally elusive seat on one of the too-few flights to Tampa before and after game day. Honestly, who could?

And while it would be fun to tailgate with thousands of Steelers Nation brethren outside Raymond James Stadium on game day, do you really want to spend 16 grueling hours in the car getting there -- and then another 16 come Monday morning heading back to Pittsburgh, quite possibly with a raging hangover?

A better place to watch the Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday just may be this tourist destination in the Nevada desert.

It might seem counterintuitive to travel halfway across the country for the opportunity to watch a game on TV that you could just as easily see from the comfort of home. Yet Las Vegas is hugely popular with football fans, in large part because it's the only state that allows legal betting on major individual sporting events.

Whereas 30 years ago only serious gamblers viewed the Super Bowl as a major wagering opportunity, today even novice bettors turn out in droves. In fact, it's the biggest single-day event of the year in Nevada, with thousands of people wagering millions of dollars on the contest. Last year alone, bets in Las Vegas topped $92 million.

To accommodate all those sports fans, most of the casinos have dedicated race and sports books, or large rooms with dozens of big televisions and comfy chairs where people can watch the game while also keeping track of their winnings -- or losses -- on a giant electric board. Seats are snapped up on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Still, it's not just about the gambling.

What really makes Super Bowl weekend in Las Vegas worth the time and expense is everything else the town has to offer. Host cities have to put on big parties for gathering sports fans. In Las Vegas, you can make your own fun 24/7, whether it's searching out a great restaurant or nightclub, pampering yourself at a spa or on a golf course, catching some standup comedy or enjoying 60-degree temperatures in January.

This year more than most, it won't cost you a bundle.

While in years past high-quality hotels on the Sin City Strip could command $300 or more a night, tourism is down in 2009. Way down. As a result, hot deals abound for Super Bowl XLIII weekend, with check-in Jan. 31 and check-out Feb. 2.

At vegas.com, for instance, a two-night stay in a luxury king suite at the five-star Venetian Resort Hotel & Casino costs as little as $450. Prices at the four-star Luxor start at about $215.

The landmark Stratosphere Las Vegas Hotel & Casino is an even bigger bargain: just $132.60 for two adults for two nights in the three-star hotel, or cheap enough to also allow for an all-day pass to its world-famous Big Shot, Insanity and X Scream thrill rides.

And unlike the prices of flights to Tampa, which have skyrocketed in the last week, airfare to Vegas is still cheap.

Southwest's "Wanna Get Away" roundtrip fare, for instance, runs as low as $275 for early-morning flights from Pittsburgh. A rental car can be had for as little as $9 a day.

Like the gamblers who fill them, each of the 60 sports books in Vegas has its distinct own personality. But if you're going for size, the Las Vegas Hilton wins hands down. Dubbed a "superbook," it boasts more than 300 seats and 42 televisions, including 28 giant projection screens and 14 50-inch plasmas; for high rollers, there's a VIP section with plush leather arm chairs. But you better arrive early if you want to score a good seat because they're guaranteed to be gone by breakfast on game day.

By kickoff, says race and sports book supervisor Chris Bennett, at least 1,000 people will cram shoulder-to-shoulder into the 30,000-square-foot book. Hundreds more will watch the action in high definition on a projection screen in an adjoining theater where Barry Manilow is currently performing his hits and from the fringes of the main casino floor.

"It's an exhilarating thing," said Mr. Bennett. "More people breed more excitement and energy."

Not to mention a heck of a lot of fun. As opposed to regular-season games, where bets are typically limited to point-line bets, money lines and total points scored, Super Bowl Sunday brings literally thousands of betting options to the table. For the record, the Steelers are 7-point favorites over the upstart Arizona Cardinals in most Las Vegas sports books.

In addition to first-half and by-quarter wagering, there are countless proposition bets to consider, or wagers made on very specific outcomes of the match: Longest rush by Willie Parker? Will Ben Roethlisberger throw an interception? What will happen first, a Steelers score or punt?

Or as Jay Rood, race and sports book director for MGM Mirage, puts it: the "fun" stuff to keep your attention during the game and optimism flowing if you're on the wrong side of a point spread.

While the sports book at the Mirage is more compact than the Hilton's, it's still pretty impressive, with more than 200 seats and 19 TVs, including a 16-foot projection screen. The circular sports book at MGM Grand, which Mr. Rood also oversees, is more modernistic and sleekly designed, with Vegas' only sky boxes -- all equipped, of course, with plasma TVs, CD systems and surround sound. Its 44 TVs include three 16-by-12-foot screens.

For some sports fans, only live action will do. But for others, watching the Super Bowl in a sports book in Vegas is an experience that's second to none. How else, asked Mr. Rood, do you explain people lining up at 3 a.m. to stake their seats?

"It's a social gathering," he said, "a place for friends to get together with the common thread of football."

And if they make a few bucks in the process? Well, that just makes it that much sweeter.


Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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