With casinos reopening, Trafford native Jimmy Vaccaro discusses an unusual time in the gambling business

Tuesday, June 9, 2020 | 8:00 AM

A 74-year-old Trafford native who has been in the casino business since 1975, Jimmy Vaccaro has seen pretty much everything the gambling industry has to offer.

Then the casino floor fell silent in March.

And people started online wagering on Russian pingpong matches because all North American sports went dark.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, these sure are unusual times in Vaccaro’s line of work.

Vaccaro, who is back working as oddsmaker at the South Point casino in Las Vegas after a brief stint with the Rivers casino last year, is spending a few months this summer visiting friends and family in Trafford.

With Vegas casinos opening last weekend and Pittsburgh’s following suit on Tuesday morning, Vaccaro took a few minutes to answer questions about the state of the business.

What do you make of the social distancing restrictions placed on casinos as they reopen? Plexiglass between players at the blackjack table? Chairs removed at every other slot machine?

I can speak to some degree for people in Las Vegas, and it’s just like, ‘Get up and running.’ Whatever the cost to get it started, get it up and running and get people acclimated that they’re open. If you don’t want to follow those rules — and I’m sure Pennsylvania gaming will be as strict — they’ll shut you down. Don’t try to get cute.

Who’s going to hurt the most early are the big-time Strip hotels – Caesar’s Palace, the Venetian, the Wynn, whatever – because nobody’s flying in. Their customer base is more high rollers and people coming long distances to visit the hotels. That’s going to be a challenge.

So these reopenings with 50% capacity, it’s a necessary first step?

This is the biggest baby step I’ve ever seen. It’s the right step to some degree. You couldn’t just open the doors. Arizona opened the doors and they were flooded with people. Nevada gaming dictated all the rules, and that’s where they’re at.

We had 250 chairs in the sports book at the South Point. There are now 60. They reduced all of them so there is more space so it obviously allows for social distancing. It’s a hard thing, but Michael Gaughn, who owns the South Point, and a lot of other casinos, they’re opening up, but they’re very, very careful with what they’re doing. They don’t want to cause any trouble. They want people to get acclimated that they’re open. It’s a start. To someone like me, you have to start somewhere. Are they going to make any money? Eh, probably not if you have only 50% of the people that usually come in. It’s going to be a tough nut.

What do you make of the strange sports people have been betting on while major sports have been shut down? Russian pingpong? Honduran soccer?

It’s different. The soccer’s OK. Soccer has been building an audience for the past few years. We don’t do the smaller countries, but the Premier League and stuff like that, they’ve been holding their own. The pingpong and stuff like that, it’s just a time filler. You can do it if you want. Hopefully that will start to dwindle out, but it’ll still be there for a while. The kingpin, there was a nice handle on the UFC on Saturday. They took a million dollar bet (on Amanda Nunes), my friends across the street (at a William Hill sports book). It does create action. That was the one that’s been super legitimate as far as we’re concerned.

So who will be the winners coming out of this? NASCAR? UFC?

NASCAR needs to have every town they go to, somehow pass a law where they can connect to a casino. When NASCAR is in Las Vegas, it’s a big deal. A lot of money on that. The UFC will survive. I give Dana White credit. He’s someone I didn’t think too highly of a year ago, but he put it on and it turned out well. My hat’s off to him. That’s the biggest sport we’re booking right now, the UFC.

Will the online sports books be winners too?

The online books are going to be a winner. People are staying in their house to begin with. Way back when, when we started with the phones or the phone apps, we were just hoping that maybe 20% of the business would be on the phones and the other 80% would be people coming in. But there’s a lot of changes going on. Right now, and I would suggest every book in Nevada and even across the country that has phone apps and walk-in traffic, if we break it down, it’s about 52% of action are people on the phones and 48% are people that come to the brick and mortar casinos. That’s how big phone apps have gotten. That’s how big sports betting has gotten. Whatever they think it’s going to be, it’ll keep growing by double digits for at least the next five years.

So you think the industry will recover quickly after the coronavirus shutdown?

It’ll always be getting bigger. The general public is now so involved in sports betting. It’s great entertainment. For $50, you can come to a sports book, bet four of five parlays throughout the course of the day, sit there and watch all the games on television, have a few drinks. With all this craziness going on — and trust me, not that sports betting is bigger than what we’re going through — but it’s a little relief. You can get away from things for maybe three or four hours if you make a bet.

Whatever they thought it was going to be five years ago, I kept telling all these geniuses, ‘You guys are way off. I can tell you the general public is involved with sports betting. It’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.’

Will the NFL starting back up make a big impact?

NFL is still king. Right now, in Pittsburgh, Pitt is way down on the 30-yard line. Baseball, the Pirates aren’t that good to begin with. They better make up their minds and do the right thing. If they cancel the season, you might cancel baseball for the next five years. The NFL is simply the king, but the thing that is catching up to the NFL is college football Saturdays. It’s absolutely a monster. College football writes as many tickets, maybe more, than an NFL Sunday. College football, in the course of a Saturday, we can have as many as 35 games on television. That’s how big it’s gotten. It won’t show around here because Pitt is what it is. It’s a mediocre team. Alabama, LSU, you can’t believe the amount of money we wrote on those big-time college towns. It’s unbelievable.

Jonathan Bombulie is the TribLive assistant sports editor. A Greensburg native, he was a hockey reporter for two decades, covering the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for 17 seasons before joining the Trib in 2015 and covering the Penguins for four seasons, including Stanley Cup championships in 2016-17. He can be reached at jbombulie@triblive.com.

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