Friday, May 27, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
As recently as two years ago, sports book directors didn’t know what to make of the UFC.
The promotion hailed mixed martial arts as the fastest growing sport in the world, but the public wasn’t stepping up to Las Vegas betting windows enough to match the hype. According to oddsmakers throughout the city, that has changed.
“The action has gone up like you wouldn’t believe in UFC,” said Mike Colbert, sports book director of Cantor Gaming, which operates books at The M, Hard Rock, The Cosmopolitan and Tropicana. “On these Saturdays when we have these UFC cards, we do massive handles.”
That’s likely to continue with this weekend’s UFC 130, which starts at 3 p.m. Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Colbert said an average UFC event would bring in four times the number of bets as an average boxing card.
“You’re talking to an absolute boxing guy here, and I will be the first to admit that UFC is more popular betting-wise,” Colbert said. “I never thought I’d see the day where it’s this popular.”
Rob Akers, assistant sports book director at the Venetian and Lagasse’s Stadium, has been a mixed martial arts fan since UFC 1 in 1993 and has set lines on the events since he started at the Venetian in 1999.
Akers has witnessed steady growth in betting interest and said he always thought UFC would get to the point where it’s at today. A few factors may have expedited the process for bettors, he said.
“I think it’s directly related to boxing’s downfall over the last few years,” Akers said. “Pacquiao is a one-man show. He’s the only guy who can bring any handle, and people want to bet on a combat sport. They are always going to find some way to bet on one, and lately it’s been the UFC.”
Betting on boxing reached its peak in the 1990s. Akers said any time Mike Tyson appeared in the ring, people would be willing to wager on his bout and every other contest at the event.
That didn’t last long, but the sweet science still had a strong presence with bettors a decade ago, behind a handful of prizefighters. Lately, the handful has whittled down to two — Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather — with the latter having not competed in more than a year.
“In boxing, most people can’t even tell you who is on the undercard,” said Jay Rood, sports book director of MGM Resorts International. “If you go to an MMA card, the buzz in the crowd and prior to that could be just as much about one of the first fights on the card.”
More wagering options are available on UFC cards, too. The Venetian used to be one of the only spots to post lines on every fight, but most of its competitors have now joined in.
Cantor offers odds on the whole card, and MGM puts about 75 percent of the bouts on its boards.
“We try to put lines on as many fights as we can because of demand,” Rood said. “The great thing about MMA is people are going for all the fights.”
According to the odds, UFC 130 has plenty of evenly matched contests for bettors to mull over. Only one of the top seven bouts on the card features a favorite at a price higher than -200 (risking $2 to win $1).
Akers said Frank Mir at -125 (risking $1.25 to win $1) against Roy Nelson, who is at -105, had attracted the most early money.
“All these pick’em fights can actually hurt our handle,” Akers said. “No one can decide what they really think and, like at UFC 129, they love having the big favorites that they can parlay.”
UFC 129 last month in Toronto had three headlining bouts with favorites of more than -300. Players parlayed Georges St. Pierre, Jose Aldo and Lyoto Machida in excess. When all three prevailed, it made for a bad night at the Venetian.
The days when sports books could ignore the UFC results and live with any outcome are over.
“It’s exploded so far beyond what it used to be,” Rood said.