08/11/2004 11:00PM

Contest action not quite so juicy

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LAS VEGAS - This column was supposed to be my celebration of all the great football contests that take place in Las Vegas. And it is, with a caveat.

The contests are mostly geared at locals, but there are also opportunities for tourists to get involved either by having a local proxy in one of the high-end contests or by playing the low-end contests when they come to town. There are no fewer than 14 contests around town, with more than $4.5 million in cash prizes to be paid out this football season.

That deserves a round of applause, but there is a disturbing trend that I just can't ignore, a trend that wouldn't be apparent to the naked eye or someone who doesn't have the past three years' worth of entry forms and rules for each and every contest.

The accounting departments have obviously been taking a closer look at these contests - which are marketing tools in their basic form. In fact, in a lot of cases, the sports book doesn't have anything to do with them, and some of the prize money has been dwindling.

* The Station Casinos and Coast Casinos, the leading local companies that cater almost exclusively to Las Vegans, used to offer $1.25 million apiece in their $25 entry-fee contests, but now their respective payouts are $1 million.

* The Palms cut back from $400,000 last year to $315,000 this year ($5,000 per week).

* Boyd Gaming used to give away $15,000 a week in a weekly contest, but cut it to $10,000 a few years back.

* Others have been completely eliminated, including the College 101 contest by the Caesars Entertainment group, the College Knowledge contest by the smaller Station Casinos-owned properties, and the Monday Night Football Contest at the Rampart and Cannery. This is in addition to the Gridiron Growler at Barley's and Beat the Best at the Wildfire, which were canceled before last season.

This is all at a time when the population here in the Las Vegas Valley has been exploding, so you'd think that the number of entries and the prizes would be on the rise.

It would be nice to think that casinos hold these contests out of the goodness of their hearts for loyal customers. The fact is that they do them to bring us to their properties every week in the hope we'll make our football wagers there, and maybe stick around to hit the table games, play the slots, or eat in their restaurants.

If they think that people are just coming in to put in their contest entries and leave, they're going to cut the purse strings. The days of tolerating loss leaders are long gone.

So, yes, the contest scene in Las Vegas is still strong and full of overlays for participants, but it won't last if we take it for granted.

Ultimate contest ups the ante

The biggest news in the football contest arena is the Golden Nugget's Ultimate Football Challenge, which outdoes the Las Vegas Hilton's SuperContest entry fee ($1,500) with a $5,000 entry fee of its own. Another interesting twist is that the Nugget is guaranteeing a $500,000 prize fund regardless of the number of entries. If it gets more than 100, it will increase the prize money.

In case you need to pool your resources with friends, teams are allowed in the Ultimate Football Challenge with the designation of a captain. Proxies are also allowed for out-of-towners, as is the case with SuperContest and Station Casinos' Gambler's Challenge.

Most of the other contests in town are similar to past years. Of special note is the equivalent of "suicide pools" - in which you pick until you lose - which are offered at Bally's with The Eliminator and at Texas Station with Last Man Standing. Texas Station guarantees a $5,000 prize, and Bally's gives all the entry fees to the survivor.

Free contests are available at all Leroy's outlets; the Boyd Gaming properties (Stardust, Sam's Town, California, Fremont, Eldorado and Joker's Wild), with a $10,000 winner-take-all prize each week; as well as the smaller Station Casinos properties (Fiesta Rancho, Fiesta Henderson, Wild Wild West, Wildfire and Barley's).

Football contests

Season-long contests with a deadline before the season starts

Ultimate Football Challenge (Golden Nugget): $5,000 entry fee, $500,000 guaranteed prize pool with $250,000 to the winner and paying down to fifth place, prizes to be increased if more than 100 entrants, contestants pick NFL side per week with one best bet worth two points, weekly selections due by 3 p.m. of day before first game chosen, proxies allowed, deadline at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11.

SuperContest (Las Vegas Hilton): $1,500 entry fee, contestants pick five NFL games against the spread each week, total prize pool of $525,000 based on 350 entries, first prize is 40% of all entry fees, an estimated $210,000, prizes paid through 20th place, the Hilton also gives a $10,000 bonus if the champion picks 67%, everyone signing up by 5 p.m. on Aug. 29 will be eligible for a free $10,000 winner-take-all contest on the last three weeks of the regular season, deadline to sign up and get first week's entry in is at 1p.m. on Friday, Sept. 10.

Gambler's Challenge (signups only at Palace Station, but weekly entries can be made at any Station Casino): $1,000 entry free, contestants pick five games a week against the spread from a card with all NFL sides, two NFL totals (Sunday and Monday night games), and two college sides, first prize is 50% of all entry fees, an estimated $100,000, prizes paid through 25th place, mini-contest over last four weeks of season for $5,000, deadline to sign up and get first week's entry in is at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11.

The Eliminator (Bally's): $50 entry fee, limit of five entries, players pick one college/NFL side/NFL total against the spread each week, you lose once you're out, last person standing wins entire prize pool, deadline Sept. 12 (by gametime of your first week's selection).

Last Man Standing (Texas Station): $25 entry fee, buy 3 get 1 free, players pick one college or NFL game against the spread each week, you lose once you're out, last person standing wins entire prize pool, guaranteed $5,000 prize, deadline Sept. 11.

Some of the following contests have season-long prizes, but locals or tourists can enter at any time to play for the weekly prizes $1 Million Great Giveaway Football Contest (Station Casinos): $25 entry, buy 2 get 1 free, each contestant also receives $25 in slot play on their Boarding Pass card, no pointspreads, NFL Sunday and Monday games only, $100,000 first prize for person picking the most winners on the season, and another $50,000 for the person picking the most losers, each pays down to 100th place, late entrants not eligible for season-end prizes but still able to play for weekly prizes such as $10,000 for most winners and $5,000 for most losers, weekly tiebreaker is the person closest to the Monday Night score without going over, $200,000 "Fiddle in the Middle" prize pool to be split by everyone who compiles a .500 record.

Friendly Frank's Pick the Pros Contest (Coast Casinos): $25 entry, buy 4 get 1 free (maximum of five entries), no pointspreads, NFL Sunday and Monday games only, $100,000 to overall winner, pays to 305th place, late entrants eligible for season-end prizes (though you're behind by 16 games after Week 1), $30,000 in weekly prizes (guaranteed $10,000 winner each week), early-bird parties at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 9, at The Orleans, Gold Coast and Suncoast for everyone signing up by 4 p.m. that day, $3,000 in cash drawings.

Pigskin Payoff Football Contest (Palms): $25 entry fee, buy 3 get 2 free, signup by Sunday, Aug. 22, and receive an extra entry free, no pointspreads, NFL Sunday and Monday games only, $25,000 to overall winner, pays to 200th place, $10,000 to the winner each week, $5,000 split up by anyone else tying for the top score, deadline for season-long prizes is Sunday, Sept. 12.

Pick Your Pros (Club Cal Neva and satellite books in Reno and at Tuscany in Las Vegas): $25 entry fee, buy 4 get 1 free (up to buy 8 get 2 free), no pointspreads, $25,000 first prize for person most winners for the season and paid down to fifth place, $3,000 for least winners picked for the season, $7,500 to each week's winner, with $1,000 for least winners, $12,500 bonus for champion selecting over 75 percent, deadline to enter for season-long prizes is at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 12.

Football Fantasy Contest (Hard Rock): $25 entry fee, one per person, limited to the first 1,500 entries, combination contest of picking NFL games with no pointspreads and head-to-head props on individual players, $103,700 in weekly prizes ($6,100 per week), $38,700 in end-of-season prizes paid to the top 25 finishers, deadline for season-long prizes is midnight on Saturday, Sept. 11.

Terrible's Football Contest (Terrible's casinos in Las Vegas and Pahrump): $10 entry fee, buy 4 get 1 free (up to buy 8 get 2 free), no pointspreads, $10,000 first prize to overall champion at all Terrible's casinos and paid through 15th place, $1,000 weekly prize for Las Vegas entrants, $750 weekly prize for those who sign up in Pahrump, deadline for season-long prizes is Sept. 12.

All-American Football Contest (Stardust, Sam's Town, California, Fremont, Joker's Wild, Eldorado): one free entry per person, no pointspreads, players pick combination of 17 college and pro games, $10,000 winner take all (split equally among multiple winners), deadline before each Saturday's first game.

Football Frenzy Football Contest (Fiesta Rancho, Fiesta Henderson, Barley's, Wild Wild West, Wildfire): one free entry per person, 2nd and 3rd entry cost $10 each, no pointspreads, NFL Sunday and Monday games only, $50,000 in season-long prizes, including $25,000 to the overall champion and paid through 100th place, $10,000 to each week's winner.

Pick'em and Win Pro Football Contest (Leroy's sports books): one free entry per person, $5,000 weekly first-place prize divided equally for multiple winners, also held during preseason, Sunday games only during regular season.