Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020 | 2 a.m.
When Circa Sports director Matthew Metcalf would occasionally look over sport-by-sport breakdowns of the action his new betting shop attracted over its first year, mixed martial arts always stood out — and not in a good way.
Metcalf built Circa Sports on the principle that the books, which initially opened at the Golden Gate and The D last year, would offer among the highest posted betting limits in town across the board. It wasn’t living up to that promise as it pertained to the UFC, even though the volume was blowing out that which was brought in by more traditional professional sports.
The book was also often winding up in the red after fight cards, holding Metcalf back from simply raising what were usually $2,000 maximum wagers on fights.
“I had no clue how big UFC betting was,” Metcalf admitted. “I’m not a UFC fan and I didn’t understand how much write we would have in it and how important it was going to be to our bottom line.”
Seeking a solution earlier this year, Metcalf began asking around the sports betting world for suggestions on the top fight minds. Matt Simo, who runs Las Vegas’ preeminent proxy service for betting contests, threw out the name Nick Kalikas, who had recently moved to town to host On The Line, a UFC Fight Pass betting show.
Kalikas had worked as a consultant for some of the largest sports books in the world, originating fight lines up until a few years ago when he mostly switched sides and started betting for a living. He was ready to get back to working for the house, and despite some initial skepticism about Circa’s grand ideas and relatively unestablished place in the industry, Metcalf quickly won him over.
“There were so many similarities between the two of us,” Kalikas said. “From the first conversation we had, he totally got where I was coming from and why I stepped back and bet MMA for a while. We could relate to each other and that made things a lot easier for me, a lot more comfortable.”
Circa has now posted as high as $25,000 limits on certain fights, appeasing a customer base widely regarded as the sharpest in town while boosting its own profits. Kalikas’ expertise in the area has let Circa do so as he’s managed its risk more effectively than someone unfamiliar with the fight-betting market.
It’s an aggressive bookmaking strategy that’s been largely absent from Las Vegas in recent years, but one that Metcalf has rigorously employed across all sports and wants to continue to build as the new Circa resort opens downtown today. The word’s largest sports book, a multimillion dollar 1,000-capacity theater, is one of the centerpieces of the property and hailed as owner Derek Stevens’ attempt to push betting into a new era.
But Stevens will be the first to say the book is only as revolutionary as the product it’s offering, a product he’s collaborated on but largely allowed Metcalf to craft over the last year and a half. That includes green-lighting Metcalf to assemble one of the most talented risk rooms, or collection of bookmakers, in Las Vegas history.
“With the quantity of sports that’s now necessary to book, you’ve got to have specialists in every area,” Stevens said. “The team Matt put together is pretty terrific.”
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Kalikas’ story, as he hinted, isn’t unique among the Circa Sports brain trust. Metcalf himself blazed practically the same career path.
In 2003, as he neared graduation from the University of Florida, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native started planning a move out to Las Vegas. He penned letters to three of the biggest names on the local sports book scene at the time asking for a job.
Two got back to him; only one was willing to hire him without any experience. That was current Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook executive, then-Imperial Palace boss Jay Kornegay, who responded with something along the lines of “come on out.”
“That meant everything to me,” Metcalf said. “It was my single-minded focus. All I wanted to do was come out and work for a sports book in Las Vegas.”
Metcalf followed Kornegay from the Imperial Palace to then-Las Vegas Hilton and worked under him for several years but began to grow tired of some parts of the job. He was making just as much money betting on the side, particularly on NASCAR and college football, and decided to instead pursue professional gambling in 2010.
It went well for eight years, but it wasn’t easy. Any big-time sports bettor has an abundance of stories regarding the trouble of getting down large sums of money on games, and Metcalf surely amassed a number of his own.
Politely, he won’t share them in public. Privately, they’ve driven his approach at Circa.
“I really didn’t understand how much I loved the customer service part of the (sports book) job until I quit to bet sports and saw how a lot of bettors were disrespected,” Metcalf said. “Not everyone was treated the same when they came in. It almost got to a point where I was offended on behalf of sports bettors, and I decided if I got back in the position, I was going to make sure I righted a wrong that had existed — not at all books, but many — for the last 20 years.”
Metcalf wasn’t sure he would ever return behind the betting counter, but always told himself he would do it if the right opportunity presented itself. The right opportunity presented itself when Stevens started talking with prospective sports book directors months before he was set to break ground on his new $1 billion property.
Stevens and Metcalf learned their visions for a new-age sports book complemented each other. Stevens wanted to emphasize football contests, future betting and personal interactions; Metcalf was determined to implement low hold percentages, two-way markets (such as yes/no prices in futures) and never turning a customer away.
“Matt really clearly showed what his thought process was on how to build this business, how to build a book for scratch,” Stevens said. “We spent a lot of time together. A lot of lunches where we would have an idea and it would just snowball.”
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Metcalf’s first two hires, Chris Bennett and Jeffrey Benson, were also part of those lunches, often held spur-of-the-moment at Golden Nugget’s Cadillac Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar or Stevens’ classic spot, Longbar at The D.
Like Kalikas, Metcalf prioritized bringing Bennett and Benson on board because of their understanding of the perspectives of both the bettor and the house. He just didn’t have to sell them as hard on the idea considering their shared histories.
“When I got hired for this job, I had a list in my head of exactly where I wanted to go,” Metcalf said. “I didn’t get everybody I wanted, and I still haven’t, but I knew Jeff from Palace Station as the best customer service person in the entire town … and Chris, I had been with him at the Hilton. I had to get Chris.”
While Metcalf is hands-on with the oddsmaking part of his job — especially in college football, NASCAR and golf — his responsibilities stretch wide and he can’t always be tethered to the trading screen. That’s where Bennett comes in.
Bennett, sportsbook manager, specializes in baseball — at least that’s how Stevens describes it, with recently hired former Caesars head Jeff Davis the NFL and NHL mastermind — but oversees the entire Circa bookmaking operation more than anyone else.
“I’ve been fortunate to work a with a lot of well-respected people, but Chris, man, he is so sharp,” Kalikas said. “He’s so on top of everything. I don’t think people understand the mind this guy has. He’s phenomenal and makes sure the ship runs tight all along the way.”
Metcalf knew Bennett as a co-worker, but he knew Benson as a customer. Benson was Metcalf’s go-to ticket writer at Palace Station because of his friendliness and diligence.
A 2011 graduate of Christopher Newport University in Virginia, Benson was another example of someone who packed up and moved to Las Vegas after college with sights set singularly on getting involved in sports betting.
“We had struck up a friendship and he came in one day and asked me to work for him,” Benson said. “It didn’t take me very long to commit to getting to work for him and Derek. Getting to start something from scratch and bring back that old-school feel was something I couldn’t pass up.”
His colleagues like to joke that Benson, sportsbook operations manager, never sleeps. He personally answers every social-media message, phone call and email that comes through Circa’s channels at every hour of the day.
He’ll also be one of the most public faces of the new sports book. Stevens built Metcalf and the trading team a state-of-the-art risk room at Golden Gate, meaning they will continue to operate from there for the foreseeable future.
Benson, meanwhile, is moving offices to Circa where he’ll be in charge of the betting windows and customer service.
“It’s a unique situation because you walk into a lot of books and you won’t see many managers, won’t see any owners,” Benson said. “But with Derek and (Circa vice president of operations) Mike Palm and I, we’re going to try to make ourselves as available as possible. We’re going to have a lot more eyes on us now, and the chance to interact with a lot of new faces and people who are going to come see us for the first time when we open is something we’re excited about.”
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Metcalf and the main Circa Sports account regularly tweet out their future pools attached with the theoretical hold percentage, which rarely ever eclipse 25%. Do the math for some other sports books in town and the house edge can come out triple that.
That’s the perceived downside of all of Circa Sports’ innovation for Stevens — the house isn’t always going to win. Circa Sports is going to have more losing days than competitors who stack the odds in their favor.
Heck, on their first day of operation last June, Stevens held an unprecedented “no juice” promotion. Circa Sports lost six figures that day.
Metcalf has praised Kalikas for transforming the book’s fight profits, but the latter says the house still loses on more events than many books would be comfortable admitting.
“We take a lot of sharp action and try to utilize it the best we can but to have so much it’s tough to actually sit back and manage all that,” Kalikas said. “That’s why people shy away from it. There are oftentimes when we take our lumps, but I see it as Metcalf’s vision playing out right in front of us.”
Despite the ups and downs, Circa Sports has no plans to stray from its bigger volume, tighter margins business model. Metcalf only wants to expand it.
Periodically, he’ll go through reports with his team and ask if they can raise betting limits in a number of sports.
“It’s not about the biggest bet, but we’re about taking fair bets,” Metcalf said. “If it’s something like NFL where we can eventually get to $100,000 to anybody, we’ll do it. I’m very proactive. We’re actively trying to raise limits, which is unique. I don’t think most places are trying to do that.”
The hope is that the new space can help reach those aspirations. Stevens conceived the three-story sports book equipped with a 78-million-pixel screen as a destination, a mecca of not only sports betting but a one-of-a-kind sports viewing experience.
The book is made to drive tourism, casino spending, and yes, betting handle, but without taking advantage of its patrons. The more money it draws from sports betting, the more betting options Metcalf will be able to post, the higher wagers he’ll be able to take.
Metcalf dreams of that day and the advances he can implement with even more leeway. He has master plans, but like any notable sports manager, he’s careful not to look too far ahead.
For now, he just wants to coach his team to keep booking one game, one event, one fight at a time.
“The next step is to continue to get more people in here to experience the product we’ve built and the room we’ve built,” Metcalf said. “And, at all points, treat them the way we would want to be treated if we were betting. I don’t think you can go wrong with that, and that will lead us to all our other goals.”