08/21/2003 12:00AM

Football contests let you go for the score


LAS VEGAS - More than a century and a half after the gold rush, there's still a way to head West and find your fortune - football contests!

There are no fewer than 16 contests in Las Vegas alone. Most of these are targeted toward locals - asking for selections to be turned in each week. But there are plenty of opportunities for out-of-towners.

The richest gold mine is the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest. Big-time prospectors put up $1,500 to try to hit the first-prize jackpot, which last year topped $160,000 when a record 281 handicappers entered. Each entrant picks five NFL games a week vs. the spread, and must turn in selections by 1 p.m. Pacific time on Fridays. But despite being aimed at locals, the past two champions came from Colorado and Illinois. The SuperContest allows an entrant to have a proxy, usually a local partner, who puts in the selections each week. Team members have to sign up together in person.

Station Casinos has the other high-end contest in town, the Gambler's Challenge, with a $1,000 entry and similar rules. If the anticipated 200 people enter, first prize would be $100,000. Proxies are also allowed in this contest.

But the beauty of the Las Vegas football contest landscape is that you don't need a huge bankroll to hit a jackpot. Last year, I spent $700 in entry fees at 13 casinos for a total of 39 entries and collected in excess of $13,000. The majority of contests have $25 entry fees for a whole season's worth of action, plus many have bonus entries if you buy a certain number.

There are even free contests at the Boyd Gaming properties (Stardust, Sam's Town, et al), the chain of Leroy's outlets, and the Football Frenzy at the Fiesta/Barley's/Wild Wild West/Wildfire grouping of smaller Station Casinos-owned properties, where the first entry is free and the second and third entries cost only $10 each.

Even though these contests are football-related with selections being submitted in the sports books, most are run by casino marketing departments. But it seems obvious that the accounting departments also got involved this year because prize money has been reduced in some of the most popular contests.

Station Casinos' Great Giveaway and Coast Casinos' Pick the Pros have both reduced their total prize pools from $1.25 million to a cooler (and not in a good way) $1 million. The College 101 contest at the Park Place properties chopped its guaranteed prize money from $50,000 to $25,000. But at least College 101 wasn't canceled.

Two contests from last year did bite the dust: the Gridiron Growler at Barley's and the Beat the Best at the Wildfire. But it's hard to be critical of Station Casinos on this matter because the company offers five different contests at its various properties, including the new Last Man Standing contest at Texas Station, which is similar to the Eliminator at Bally's, in which contestants pick one game a week until they lose. The person who stays alive the longest takes the whole pot. It's survival of the fittest handicapper.

And that pretty much sums up the Wild West mentality: come and get it. Even with some reductions in prize money, these are still overlays. The riches are here for the taking.