02/07/2002 1:00AM

With no Olympic bets, sports books in dog days


Last Sunday, with $71 million in handle on one of the best Super Bowls ever, was a major high for Nevada's sports book operators and patrons. But now those same people will be going through major withdrawal as the sports betting menu slows down emphatically.

Now, you might be saying, "Wait a minute . . . the Olympics are going on for the next two weeks!"

A lot of people have forgotten that a year ago the Nevada Gaming Commission passed a resolution that banned betting on the Olympic Games in the state's sports book. At the time of the hearing, in January 2001, the state was under fire from Sen. John McCain's "Amateur Sports Integrity Act" that called for a ban on all so-called amateur sports, including college, high school, and Olympic games.

Nevada's didn't want to stop taking bets on college sports (which make up 30 percent of the state's handle every year), but went ahead and banned high school sports (which have never been booked in Nevada anyway) and the Olympics (which have never attracted much action).

The ruling was a concession to give McCain & Co. a minor victory while keeping the more lucrative college betting legal. The anti-betting factions didn't appreciate the gesture, especially when the Commission also voted to allow betting on UNLV and the University of Nevada games.

The regulations took effect Feb. 7, 2001, so on Saturday Nevadans will have to turn to off-shore books to bet on the Belarus-Ukraine hockey game, cross-country skiing or speedskating. It's a trade-off the sports books were willing to make in the long run, though McCain has vowed to try to attach his bill to other legislation this spring.

The Olympics will have another impact on sports books' handle this month. The NHL is going on hiatus from next Thursday through Feb. 25 so the league's top players can compete for their home countries. Hockey wagering is less than 1 percent of the yearly sports book handle, but those bettors will be missed on some nights when bookmakers look out from behind the counter and see a lot of empty seats.

College and pro basketball will have to carry the load in the next two weeks, though this weekend will be especially light in the sports book. The NBA began its All-Star break after Thursday night's games and, with the exception of Sunday's All-Star Game in Philadelphia, there won't be any NBA games until Tuesday.

Tourism impact minimal

When it was first announced in 1995 that Salt Lake City would host the 2002 Winter Olympics, Nevada was hoping that it would receive an economic windfall, too.

The thought was that many of the 1.5 million tourists might want to stop in the gambling mecca either before or after they went to the Olympics. It's a one-hour flight from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, or a six-hour drive, so it seemed like the perfect place for a layover.

That scenario hasn't panned out. Vegas hotels are reporting that advance reservations are only at 85 percent the next three weekends. The casinos long ago decided that the people making the expensive trip to the Olympics wouldn't spend very much on a stop in Las Vegas, so they didn't devote any marketing spending toward them.

But that doesn't mean Las Vegas isn't interested in future visitors. The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority has reportedly paid $700,000 to sponsor Olympic highlights on ESPN.

Another non-betting event

If the lack of sports betting opportunities makes Las Vegans actually go outside this weekend, Cashman Field has a perfect option for sports fans.

It's the annual Big League Challenge, taking place Saturday at 11 a.m. This is the home-run hitting contest that airs on ESPN and ESPN2 throughout the spring and summer.

This year's lineup includes single-season record-holder Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez, Todd Helton, Jim Thome, Shawn Green, Richie Sexson, and defending Challenge champion Rafael Palmeiro.

General admission tickets are $8, with box seats going for $20.

Need something to bet?

For those who can't resist (or think they have an edge), the Pro Bowl is Saturday at 1:30 p.m. The NFC opened as a 3-point favorite with a total of 44, but the early money has come in on the NFC and the over, driving the line up to 3 1/2 and the total up to 44 1/2.

Bettors think the NFC, and especially the Rams players on the squad, will be out for revenge after losing the Super Bowl as a heavy favorite.