08/13/2008 11:00PM

Popularity of football contests on rise

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It has long been believed that the casino business in general, and Las Vegas in particular, is recession proof.

The thought is that no matter how bad people have it, they still are willing to gamble or otherwise escape from their everyday lives. Despite a few peaks amidst the valleys, visitor volume and gaming revenue in Las Vegas during this recent economic downturn has slumped, just like other businesses. Casino layoffs are fairly common, and construction has slowed on several projects.

But there appears to be at least one area on which casino executives remain bullish: football contests. For years, casinos have used football contests to draw people to their gambling joints. Whether it's the high-end competitions, like the Hilton SuperContest, that have traditionally drawn the professional bettors as well as out-of-towners who want to see if they can take on the big boys at $1,500 an entry, or the low-end contests at the locals casinos with entry fees in the more modest $25 range that give players a chance to turn a toothpick into a lumberyard.

The accompanying chart shows the season-long contests that attract the most media attention with the biggest prizes. My complete list of all the football contests in Las Vegas appears with this column on the drf.com website.

Last year there were just six season-long contests in town; this year there are eight. There has been one casualty as the Glory of the Gridiron contest hosted by the Harrah's network of casinos folded after just its second year after garnering only 70 entries last year, despite dropping its entry fee from $2,000 to $1,000. But while that high-end contest dropped out, there are three new season-long contests appealing to the middle and lower end of the spectrum.

Leroy's sports books, which have filled a void with its College Challenge and a $250 entry fee, have added a Pro Challenge with nearly identical rules and a $100,000-guaranteed prize pool. The feeling is that while the college contest has averaged about 400 entries each year to just about break even on the promotion, the popularity of the NFL should draw a lot more entries at the same price.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Club Cal Neva, the network of books based in Reno but with outlets in Las Vegas at Binion's, Four Queens, and Tuscany, is now being run by longtime Vegas bookmaker Nick Bogdanovich, and he obviously thinks $250 is the "right number" as Cal Neva is debuting Gridiron Gold with similar rules to its competitor.

Station Casinos has had a hit the past few years with a Last Man Standing contest. So, it borrowed its own idea and doubled its pleasure. Instead of giving contestants the option of picking a college or a pro game in the same contest, Station has split them into two contests, both with $25 entry fees but with the incentive that if you buy four you get a fifth free. The Last Man Standing NFL contest will be held at the regular Station Casinos (the ones with "Station" in their name, plus the Green Valley Ranch and Red Rock Resort), while the Last Man Standing college contest will be hosted by its sister properties at the Fiesta Rancho and Fiesta Henderson. The NFL contest guarantees a $50,000 first-place prize. There is a $10,000 prize assured for the college contest. Like Southern California pick four and pick six guarantees, it doesn't appear the casinos will be dipping into their own coffers to pay off the winners.

Here are some notes from the contests that don't appear on this page, but are mostly of interest to locals, though out-of-towners can enter to shoot for weekly prizes when visiting:

* The Station Casinos' Great Giveaway remains the biggest of these smaller NFL contests, with $1.4 million in prizes for its $25 entry fee. As in the past, if you buy two entries you get a third free, but this year if you enter all 17 weeks and don't cash anything, they'll give you $50 back in slot play at the end of the season.

* The Fantasy Football Contest at the Rampart and Cannery (and the Eastside Cannery, which is planned to open Aug. 28) is the only contest that involves fantasy matchups instead of teams. Contestants who cash weekly prizes qualify for a playoff contest for more money against the other weekly winners.

* Coast Casinos, a subsidiary of Boyd Gaming that includes the Orleans, Gold Coast, and Suncoast, plus Sam's Town, California, Fremont, Joker's Wild, and Eldorado, used to be neck-and-neck with Stations for the most local entries. Coast Casinos eliminated its season-long prizes and now just has a purse of $510,000, but it might end up drawing more people to its joints as the Pick the Pros Football Contest is now free. It also offers the biggest weekly prize at $30,000.

* Well, that biggest weekly prize title might be in jeopardy if the new Lucky's group gets its wish. It is offering a free contest at its books in Las Vegas, Reno, and Elko, and the Terrible's books in Southern Nevada with a unique twist. If no one picks every NFL game correctly in a given week, the $6,000 prize carries over to the next week with another $6,000 added in. Just four carryovers (and with the NFL, it's very possible that no one sweeps the card during a given month) and they would reach $30,000.

List of Las Vegas football contests

Section 1: Season-long contests with a deadline before the season starts:

* Friendly Frank's Pro Championship Challenge (South Point and El Cortez in Las Vegas, plus Virgin River in Mesquite): $2,500 entry fee; limit two entries per person; contestants pick five NFL games against the spread each week; only Sunday and Monday games will be used, with a maximum of 15 games on the contest card each week; guaranteed prize pool of at least $250,000, with minimum $100,000 to the winner, $75,000 for second, $50,000 for third, $25,000 for fourth; all entry fees are returned as prize money, so any entries over 100 will increase the prize proportionally; $50,000 bonus to be split by all entrants hitting 65 percent or higher; early-bird party for those signing up by 5 p.m. Sept. 6; deadline to enter is noon Saturday, Sept. 6, with entries due each week by 2 p.m. Saturday.

* SuperContest (Las Vegas Hilton): $1,500 entry fee; limit two entries per person; contestants pick five NFL games against the spread each week; 100 percent of entry fees returned as prize money; first prize is 40 percent of all entry fees; prizes paid through 20th place; the Hilton also gives an aggregate $10,000 bonus for anyone who picks over 67 percent; everyone signing up by 4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 1, will be eligible for a free $10,000 winner-take-all contest on the last three weeks of the regular season; selections due by 1 p.m. Friday each week, unless playing a Thursday game, then all five plays due before the scheduled kickoff of Thursday's game; deadline to sign up and get first week's entry in is 1 p.m. Friday, Sept. 5.

* The Challenge (Station Casinos, including Palace, Boulder, Texas, Sunset, Santa Fe, Green Valley Ranch, and Red Rock): $1,000 entry fee; limit three entries per person; contestants make five plays per week against the spread from a contest card that includes all NFL games for the week, plus usually one NFL total and one college side; total prize pool of $200,000 based on 200 entries; first prize is a guaranteed $100,000 or 50 percent of all entry fees, whichever is greater; prizes paid through 20th place; if the champion selects over 67 percent, Station awards a one-year lease of a Mercedes-Benz C-350 W; all contestants also eligible for a winner-take-all mini-contest over the last four weeks of the season, with the prize being 6.25 percent of the prize pool (estimated $12,500 based on 200 entries); in addition, those who sign up by 11 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 31, will be eligible for $100 in their Sports Connection Account (phone and intrastate computer wagering) if they also make $500 in wagers by Oct. 1; deadline to sign up and get first week's entry in is 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 6.

* Leroy's College Challenge (all Leroy's sports books): $250 entry fee; limit three entries per person; contest lasts 12 weeks using Saturday games only from Sept. 6 through Nov. 22; contestants pick seven college games against the spread (all games are half-points) from a list of as many as 50 games; guaranteed prize pool of $100,000; first prize is $30,000 or 30 percent of all entry fees, whichever is greater; prizes paid through 40th place; 5 percent of prize pool will go to the winner of a mini-contest over the final four weeks; selections are due by 5 p.m. each Friday; deadline to sign up is 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 5.

* Leroy's Pro Challenge (all Leroy's sports books): $250 entry fee; limit three entries per person; Sunday and Monday NFL games only; contestants pick five NFL games against the spread (all games are half-points); guaranteed prize pool of $100,000; first prize is $30,000 or 30 percent of all entry fees, whichever is greater; prizes paid through 40th place; 5 percent of prize pool will go to the winner of a mini-contest over the final four weeks; selections are due by 9 a.m. each Saturday; deadline to sign up is 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 5.

* Gridiron Gold (all Club Cal Neva books, including Binion's, Tuscany, and Four Queens in Las Vegas): $250 entry fee; contestants pick five NFL games against the spread (all games are half-points); first prize is 50 percent of all entry fees; cash prizes paid through fifth place, with sixth through 20th place receiving a free entry in the 2009 Gridiron Gold; selections due by 10 p.m. Saturday each week, unless playing a Thursday or Saturday game, then all five plays due before the scheduled kickoff of the earliest game used; deadline to sign up is 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6.

* Last Man Standing NFL contest (Station Casinos, including Palace, Boulder, Texas, Sunset, Santa Fe, Green Valley Ranch, and Red Rock): $25 entry fee, buy four get one free; maximum of five entries per person; players pick one NFL game against the spread each week; all spreads will use half-points; you lose once, you're out; last person standing wins entire prize pool; guaranteed $50,000 prize; in case of a tie, prize money will be split equally; selections must be made each week before the scheduled kickoff time of the game used; deadline to sign up is 9 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 7.

* Last Man Standing college contest (Fiesta Rancho & Henderson): $25 entry fee, buy four get one free; maximum of five entries per person; players pick one college game against the spread each week; all spreads will use half-points; you lose once you're out; last person standing wins entire prize pool; guaranteed $10,000 prize; in case of a tie, prize money will be split equally; selections must be made each week before the scheduled kickoff time of the game used.

Section 2: Contests that can be entered at any time for the weekly prizes, even if they have season-long prizes:

* Great Giveaway Football Contest (Station Casinos): $25 entry fee; buy two get one free; maximum of three entries per person; contestants pick all NFL Sunday and Monday games only; no point spreads; the person who picks the most winners during the season can choose between $100,000 cash or a $230,000 house from Engle Homes; the contestant picking the most losers will also have the choice of $100,000 cash or a $230,000 house; the top 10 finishers in both the winner's and loser's categories win cash prizes, with 11th through 200th places receiving free slot play; late entrants not eligible for season-end prizes but still able to play for weekly prizes such as $20,000 for most winners and $10,000 for most losers, with $10,000 and $5,000, respectively, guaranteed to a single winner with all others tied for first splitting the remaining amount; contestant with most winners can instead choose to take a BMW 328i in lieu of the cash prize; weekly tiebreaker is the person closest to the Monday night score without going over (in the event of multiple Monday night games, the last game on the card will be used); the automatic "Fiddle in the Middle" prize is back with everyone finishing with a .500 record (or one game over or under .500 if there ends up being an odd number of games in the contest) sharing the $200,000 aggregate prize; at the end of the season, all players who compete in all 17 weeks on all three contest cards and don't win a weekly or end-of-season prize will receive their $50 entry fee back in the form of free slot play.

* Pigskin Payoff Football Contest (Palms): $25 entry fee; buy three get three free; maximum six entries per person; contestants pick all NFL Sunday and Monday games only; no point spreads; $300,000 total prize pool; $10,000 to overall winner, paying to 50th place; contestant must submit card every week to be eligible for season-long prizes; $10,000 to the winner each week, $5,000 to the second-place finisher, or split evenly by those who tie for the top score and lose the tie-breaker, which is the Monday night score; those who enter by Friday, Aug. 22 receive $10 in free slot play; two $500 second-chance drawings held in the sports book each Monday night for losing tickets; selections due by 9 a.m. each Sunday.

* Fantasy Football Contest (Rampart, Cannery and Eastside Cannery): $25 entry fee; buy two get one free if signed up by Aug. 31; maximum of three per person; signups available at Eastside Cannery at expected Aug. 28 opening; contestants pick from 12 head-to-head fantasy player matchups per week; $5,000 weekly prize for the top score, plus the weekly winner earns berth in the postseason playoffs; at the end of the regular season, the 17 weekly winners are joined by 50 "wild cards" who earn the most points during the year, and they compete from the wild-card games through the conference championships, with the best fantasy picker winnings $10,000; postseason prized paid down to 10th place; deadline for the first week is 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6, though people can enter at anytime to go for weekly prizes.

* Pro Pick-em (all Club Cal Neva books, including Binion's, Tuscany and Four Queens in Las Vegas): $25 entry fee; limit 10 entries per person; contestants pick all NFL Sunday and Monday games; no point spreads; $25,000 to overall winner and paid down to fifth place; $3,000 for least winners picked; weekly prize of $7,500 for most winners and $1,000 for least winners; entry fee decreased by $5 each month into the season for late entrants, but only those signing up by 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 7, are eligible for season-long prizes; free $5 parlay card with each paid entry by 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 7.

* College Pick-em (all Club Cal Neva books, including Binion's, Tuscany and Four Queens in Las Vegas): $20 entry fee, but only $10 if coupled with a pro contest entry for a total of $35; limit 10 entries per person; contestants play all 10 games on weekly contest card; no point spreads; $3,500 for the season-long winner and paid down to fifth place; $3,000 weekly prize for most winners and $500 for most losers; selections due by 9 a.m. each Saturday; free $5 parlay card with each paid entry before 9 a.m. Sept. 6.

* Pick the Pros Football Contest (Orleans, Gold Coast, Suncoast, California, Fremont, Sam's Town, Joker's Wild, and Eldorado): no entry fee; must join Club Coast, Prime Rewards Club, or Players Gold Club; all members will be given three entries each week; up to two bonus entries may be sent out by direct mail to customers based on casino play; maximum five total entries per person each week; Sunday and Monday NFL games only (maximum of 15 per week); no season-long prizes. $30,000 will be awarded each week to the contestant(s) with the most winners; if two or three people tie for the top record, they will share the prize equally; if four or more are tied, the winner of the tiebreaker (closest to the total points in the Monday night game or earliest time-stamp for the week) will win $10,000 and the losers of the tiebreaker will split $20,000 equally; selections are due by kickoff of Sunday's first game each week.

* Football Frenzy Contest (Fiesta Rancho & Henderson): no entry fee; limit one per person; NFL Sunday and Monday games only; no point spreads; the contestant with the most winners each week will receive $10,000; tiebreaker is the closest to the total points in the Monday night game without going over, with the second tiebreaker being the previous week's record and the final tiebreaker being the earliest date and time of registration; entries accepted until the first game listed on that week's contest card.

* Pro Football Progressive Carryover Contest (Lucky's sports books in Las Vegas, Reno, and Elko, plus Terrible's sports books in Las Vegas, Pahrump, and Primm): signups begin Monday, Aug. 25; no entry fee; limit of one entry per person per week; NFL Sunday and Monday games only; no point spreads; a $6,000 prize will be awarded to the person(s) who picks every game correctly that week; if no one has a perfect card, no prize will be awarded and the $6,000 will be carried over until the following week; that continues until the jackpot is hit and starts over at $6,000; if no one has a perfect card in Week 17 of the NFL season, the prize will be divided equally among all those with the top score that week; selections are due by 9 a.m. each Sunday.

Horse racing contest notes

The Wynn $150,000 Race Handicapping Challenge, with its $2,000 entry fee and a guarantee of $150,000, drew 80 entrants last Friday and Saturday for its tournament using Saratoga and Del Mar races only. Or that was the plan. When Saratoga canceled after the second race Friday, Arlington was used the rest of the day. Making $2 mythical win-and-place wagers on all the contest races over the two days, Cheryl Kaufman of Hacienda Heights, Calif., compiled a winning score of 181.90 to take the first place prize of $53,346. Kaufman is a former leader on the NHC Tour and stands in fourth place heading into this weekend. Mark Fatemi of Fullerton, Calif., was a distant second at 153.40 to earn place money of $21,337.

* The Pick the Ponies Invitational at the Las Vegas Hilton, with a $500 entry fee, will be held Aug. 21-23. Donnie Chambers of Foley, Ark., the winner of the PTP in May, will be back to defend his title. The summer tourney doesn't sell out like the ones the week of the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup, so seats are still available.