INDIANAPOLIS — If you’re a college basketball fan, the rainy, gray afternoon in Indianapolis on Thursday probably blurred together with many of the 700-odd ones since Virginia cut down the nets after winning the 2019 NCAA tournament in Minneapolis.
We all know why — COVID-19 came and upended the world — and in the sports world, college basketball was hit particularly hard. It was the only major U.S. sport that did not crown a champion in 2020, men’s or women’s.
In terms of sports betting, the lack of March Madness in 2020 put a dent in the bottom line and growth projections of operators who were riding a wave of momentum and mainstream acceptance in expanding on a state-by-state basis.
The NCAA chose hosting the entire tournament in Indiana, with its primary staging location in downtown Indianapolis near its headquarters. You can’t walk more than two blocks without seeing a pack of police-escorted charter buses transporting teams to or from their hotels to the Convention Center, Lucas Oil Field, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, or Farmers Coliseum for practice.
The tournament officially started Thursday evening with the First Four, though those games were played outside the city at Purdue’s Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Indiana’s Assembly Hall in Bloomington. There has yet to be a basket scored downtown, but it was clear the heartbeat of the city was beginning to quicken.
Looking for Ws at the Winner’s Circle
Indianapolis does not have a downtown casino. It does allow remote registration for sportsbook accounts, which is good, but for that in-person feel, Winner’s Circle is the place to go. It is one of two OTB’s operated by Harrah’s Hoosier Park and in very close proximity to Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, home to the Indiana Pacers.
It also does brisk sports betting business in addition to wagers on the ponies. According to the most recent revenue report from the Indiana Gaming Commission, this Winner’s Circle location generated a handle of slightly more than $2 million. That would have ranked sixth among all locations that accept bets in the state and second among the three OTBs.
Winner’s Circle has a spacious feel, aided in part by social distancing rules, but it also looks like not much was needed to create its current set-up. The bar is immediately in front of you as you walk in the door after passing a digital thermometer and ID check, there is an open area for sitting and eating or drinking, and the perimeter is lined with self-serve kiosks for horse racing and sports wagering, manual ticket counters for both, and large-screen TVs carrying simulcasts and sporting events.
Winner’s Circle was bustling without being busy as the afternoon led up to the First Four games starting with Mount St. Mary’s vs. Texas Southern. There was a late rush to get bets taken manually, and yours truly got a bet down with barely 30 seconds to spare before the 5:10 p.m. EDT tip-off. But with wager and drink in hand, it was time to get down to the business of watching.
Action on the screen, action in the book
It was difficult to tell at first if there was any one bet carrying the day as people intently watched the screens. There were scattered groans on misses and claps on made shots — did everyone take the over? Then I started picking up scattered analysis from the crowd:
“Dude, why are you taking that shot?”
“He’s sagging, shoot the 3!”
Most people were seated, but a few were standing and living slightly louder with each make and miss. In a largely forgettable first half — not completely unexpected with a pair of 16 seeds vying for the right to likely get dump-trucked by Michigan — Mount St. Mary’s led 30-20.
There was still scattered noise in the area as horse races continued from seemingly everywhere on the globe, but there was clearly a larger contingent watching hoops as the Drake-Wichita State game tipped off to add to the excitement.
It became clear Texas Southern was the team of choice as it started the second half with a surge. The first real sportsbook explosion, that feeling of “Oh yeah, we’re back baby!” was the roar that came when Jordan Gilliam drilled a 3-pointer in transition to give the Tigers a 31-30 lead with 16:45 to play and cap an 11-0 run.
Texas Southern making a comeback 🔥
Jordan Gilliam makes this 3. pic.twitter.com/UdwRUwF4nO
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 18, 2021
If you’ve been at a sportsbook, you instantly recognized that roar. If you’ve placed a wager, you’ve made that roar.
Mount St. Mary’s would regroup and score the next eight points, fraying some nerves, but Texas Southern would again respond positively. This time it was a 15-4 spurt, with 3-pointers by Gilliam and John Walker III providing reasons for cheers echoing around the room.
Everyone with a ticket on Texas Southern — it appeared there was only one person present who wagered on Mount St. Mary’s — was now coaching as actively as Johnny Jones, pleading for a slower tempo to protect the lead, wanting the extra pass that would lead to a high-percentage shot, and not to foul defensively. It all paid off in the end with a collective exhale and some fist-bumps coming with 16 seconds left after Joirdon Karl Nicholas made a pair of free throws sealed a 60-52 victory for the Tigers.
Downtown dinner doings
With an extra $20 to my name, the dinner venue of choice was The District Tap. This is a place that would rock sans pandemic, but still had plenty of energy from those in attendance. It is another venue within walking distance of both Bankers Life and Lucas Oil Field and full of large-screen televisions over the bar and throughout the property.
Placing a bet was easy — wagers placed online via both DraftKings and FanDuel processed without issue — and as the Drake-Wichita State game went from potential blowout to nail-biter, the cheers and groans escalated in frequency and volume. A potential buzzer-beater from the Shockers failed to go down, but the buzz around The District Tap made it plenty clear.
The Madness is back and not a moment too soon.