- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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On any given Sunday this fall, NASCAR fans entering the sports book at the Wynn Las Vegas had a tough time finding the race on one of the 25 big-screen televisions in the establishment. That's because odds are that -- at best -- there was only one screen tuned in to the action on the track.
NASCAR undoubtedly has made it to the big time in the world of professional sports, in the same popularity conversation with the NFL and Major League Baseball. But in the world of big-time gambling, the stock-car circuit might as well still be stuck in the back-road moonshine days.
It's an afterthought.
"We bring the races in so that a bettor could put it on in their own carrel, but we're not going to displace NFL games for NASCAR," says John Avello, who manages the sports book at the hottest new hotel on the strip.
Sports bookmakers in Las Vegas say NASCAR betting made up less than 1 percent of the $2.4 billion wagered last year. Execs at online gambling sites peg the percentage even lower, as untold billions from the NFL, NBA and horse racing dwarf the betting interest in motor sports.
"I don't understand it," says Calvin Ayre, chief executive of online gambling site Bodog.com. "We thought we'd be seeing a lot more betting on a sport like NASCAR, but for some reason it either isn't meant for gambling or it appeals to a segment of society that doesn't like to gamble. That's strange, though, because the sport has its roots in the South and we have a lot of customers from the South."
The difference is so marked that bookmakers say they often see more action on a meaningless college basketball game between two unranked teams than on a race in a sport that claims 75 million fans.
One reason for that disconnect, according to three-time Winston Cup points champion Darrell Waltrip, might be that NASCAR doesn't provide a natural attraction for gamblers because it's so difficult to reach a confident comfort level about the outcome of a race.
"It's too unpredictable," says Waltrip, who nows calls races for Fox. "This is not a physical thing. It's not a guy running with a ball or a guy shooting with a ball. It's a car going around a track with not just a few guys -- 43 guys."
In recent years, sports books have started to offer race matchups, where gamblers are given a choice between two drivers and can bet on which of them they think will finish ahead of the other.
Avello, who has been offering NASCAR since he was running the show at Bally's in 1990, today tries to entice gamblers with Dale Earnhardt Jr. versus Jeff Gordon, the odds of certain engine manufacturers to win a race, and the over/under on the number of cautions or the number of cars that will finish.
Has it helped?
Well, he still has Sunday's race on just one big-screen TV.
"As the popularity of a sport grows, there is usually more people betting on it," says Simon Noble, chief executive of PinnacleSports.com, one of the world's largest sports books. "NASCAR seems to be the one exception to the rule."
According to Noble, it takes approximately 100 NASCAR races to equal the amount of bets his company takes in on each NFL game.
Clearly, NASCAR itself hasn't suffered from the lack of betting action. Over the last five years, the ratings for TNT's NASCAR telecasts have risen by 26 percent, including 11 percent this year alone. NBC and Fox have seen an average of 5 percent year-to-date gains in the number of households tuned in to their NASCAR races.
"I don't have a clue about why betting isn't more prevalent," says Mark Martin, a 24-year NASCAR Cup veteran. "But if you want to know what springs or shocks to run at Homestead [Fla.], I can get you a good setup."
J.D. Gibbs, president and co-owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, which fielded 2005 Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart and two other cars this season, believes that betting can enhance the excitement of an otherwise insignificant sporting event but that it won't make much of a ripple in a sport that has "arrived" to the extent NASCAR has.
"There's enough excitement in our sport," Gibbs says. "Imagine all the NFL teams playing in one spot every week. When NASCAR goes somewhere, there are all sorts of story lines there. It's not just one team -- it's all 43 cars, so we don't have to have betting to try to make it more exciting."
Ironically, NASCAR officials seem more outwardly comfortable about their sport's association with gambling than executives of other major sports league are.
Casinos and legal gambling establishments are allowed to be sponsors, and the tracks and state lotteries feature scratch-off tickets with images of NASCAR drivers on them. Cup part-timer Mike Skinner's No. 37 car is plastered with logos of Bospoker.net, a free educational poker site, a sponsorship designed in the hope that it will steer players to its for-pay site, Bospoker.com.
Harrah's Casino Hotels has been the primary sponsor of a race, and was the main sponsor of Robby Gordon's No. 7 car this past season. Although that arrangement includes no blatant promotion of gambling, it's no secret that Harrah's main source of revenue isn't from the margin on its hotel rooms.
Jeffrey Pollack, vice president of sports and entertainment marketing for Harrah's, says the goal of the relationship isn't to get people to bet on the races.
"We invested in NASCAR for the same reasons that Home Depot and Pepsi and other Fortune 250 companies have," Pollack says. "It's all about NASCAR delivering that audience that is very brand loyal."
Unlike other major pro leagues, which have yet to put a franchise in Las Vegas, NASCAR has staged a race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway since 1998. Until recently, in fact, NASCAR drivers were the only athletes in a major sport who were allowed to bet on themselves.
Back in 2001, NASCAR president Mike Helton said, "We keep our eyes open to make sure it doesn't encroach on our sport, to make sure there's nothing rigged or fixed. There's nothing in the rule book that says you can't bet on a race. But overall, you can't do anything that is detrimental to the sport."
Stewart says he once put $100 on himself to win at LVMS. (He lost.) But last year, talk of drivers betting on themselves -- including Brendan Gaughan, who said he bet on himself to win -- caused the organization to issue an edict.
"We've made it clear that they can bet on other sports in legal establishments, but it's not appropriate to be betting on our sport," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston says.
But the practice of betting by drivers couldn't have been too rampant -- or for significant dollars -- or the premier Las Vegas and online books would have seen a bump in business while it was happening.
PinnacleSports.com's Noble hasn't given up on NASCAR. But because of the lack of betting, he offers a maximum bet of only $2,000, as opposed to the $30,000 max he allows for NFL games.
On the Web site, NFL betting possibilities fill seven pages. Only one page is reserved for the likes of curling, politics, weather predictions, Miss World 2005 and yes, even NASCAR.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
NASCAR has made the big time. But in gambling circles, it doesn't rate. Darren Rovell examines why the sport lacks a real presence in Vegas.