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The NFL is back, and for one afternoon, so is Las Vegas

Updated September 14, 2020 - 8:20 am

Ten minutes before kickoff Sunday, the parking lot of the Westgate SuperBook off Joe W. Brown Drive still had two spaces available.

You could tell right away this was going to be an NFL opening Sunday in Las Vegas like no other. Even if it was marked by the Raiders’ first game as Las Vegas’ NFL team.

Jay Kornegay, the iconic sports betting parlor’s vice president, was mortified.

“What?!” he shrieked in mock horror upon learning that nobody was lapping the parking lot.

“The good news is it’s football season, games are being played, people are excited,” Kornegay said. “But you notice it’s not quite normal. You don’t see as big a crowd as we normally see.”

But you still saw a crowd that would have made the CDC nervous.

Nobody leaves the building

Kornegay was standing in the main lobby, not far from the bronze statue of Elvis Presley. Back in the SuperBook, nobody was leaving the building. By kickoff of the afternoon games, the security force was lined up in a goal-line stance across the entrance.

The book had reached half capacity of 1,100 — full capacity during a virulent pandemic, per governor edict.

Had Dr. Anthony Fauci been setting up in the pocket by the betting windows, he would have gotten happy feet. Social distance was hard to come by.

Most who didn’t arrive early enough to get a seat mostly stood around in small clusters.

“For race and sports book players, they are very consistent about (wearing) their masks,” Kornegay said. “Sometimes with social distancing, when there’s a line, it gets a little challenging. But when we do remind them, they’ve been pretty good (about abiding).”

“It’s a little scary,” admitted one football fan seated up front about commingling with others during a pandemic. He was wearing a Russell Wilson Seahawks jersey and said to call him Carl — that he had underlying heart and respiratory issues.

“I just come here and the grocery store and that’s about it,” Carl said.

South Point spreads out

Across town at South Point, social distance was more abundant.

The comfy chairs in the sportsbook were more spaced than those at Westgate. They stretched from one end of the book to the VSiN studio where Brent Musburger holds court when he’s not calling Raiders games on the radio.

“I was out on Las Vegas Boulevard, telling people we are open,” said Jimmy Vaccaro, the South Point’s legendary oddsmaker, about how he began his day. “Somebody must have heard us.”

Though there was a higher percentage of Raiders jerseys at South Point than Westgate, supporters of the Silver and Black were forced to squint to watch the team’s debut as Las Vegas Raiders. Their game at Carolina was relegated to the smaller big screens in the main betting parlor.

“I couldn’t care less about the Raiders except if we need them to win or need them to lose — I’m a bookmaker,” Vaccaro said from the South Point nerve center where he, sportsbook director Chris Andrews and VSiN marketing director Vinny Magliulo marveled at the turnout on opening Sunday.

“I remember a couple of years ago when Steve Young was talking about the demand for the NFL and said it was everlasting,” Andrews said. “He’s right. I don’t see it waning.”

An older football fan seated in the fourth row of seats near the sportsbook’s 50-yard line got attention with her Saints cap. Betty Herold said she was conceived on Mount Charleston. She returned to Las Vegas after her job with the cruise ship line she worked for fell victim to COVID-19.

Her new exotic port of call is the South Point race and sports book. She had arrived at 7 a.m. to get a seat and seemed to be having a good time, though the Raiders and Panthers were racking up points, thereby turning the under bet that was part of her parlay into ticker tape.

“I marked the wrong circle (on the parlay card),” she said.

Pro football was back. And for one afternoon, it seemed, so was Las Vegas.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.