It was 1988 when Derek Stevens, then a graduate student at the University of Michigan, rented a car and set out on a summer road trip with a buddy to Los Angeles.
Las Vegas was only supposed to be a one-night pit stop. It turned into much more.
They stayed at the Dunes, an iconic casino on the Las Vegas Strip that was well past its prime. Rooms were just 19 bucks.
Upon arrival, Stevens popped a quarter into a Sigma Derby machine, a mechanical horse racing game that was popular in casinos at the time. It was his first bet in Las Vegas.
Next, he headed to the roulette table, betting simply black or red.
"We were up 20 bucks," Stevens recalled, "and we pulled the money off the table and went right up the desk and bought a second night."
It was the beginning of a love affair with Las Vegas for Stevens, who, 31 years later, is the owner of two casinos downtown. But it's what he is building next that has sports bettors and revelers on Fremont Street Experience intrigued.
For the uninitiated, Fremont Street Experience is a crowded, seven-block stretch of downtown Las Vegas that's a little raunchier than the glam of The Strip. Street performers -- some clothed, others not so much -- dance, frolic and pretend to sleep sprawled out in the center of the road. Above, a 1,500-by-90-foot, high-tech video screen is suspended, creating a laser-light show for a canopy. Music blares. Unabashed tourists do the Electric Slide, as thrill-seekers on the Slotzilla zip-line ride that begins on top of the world's largest slot machine fly by in front of vintage casinos such as Binion's and the Golden Nugget.
Early on the first Saturday morning in June, things aren't quite as wild. Fremont Street feels like New Orleans' French Quarter: It's difficult to determine who is up early and who just hasn't gone to bed yet.
Inside the Golden Gate, one of Stevens' properties and the oldest hotel in Downtown Las Vegas, TV cameras and a crowd of bettors and bookmakers are gathered in the corner of the casino. At 8 a.m., Stevens takes an oversize pair of scissors and cuts a blue ribbon, signifying the opening of his new bookmaking operation, Circa Sports. It will be the sports betting hub for what's coming next.
Outside the automatic sliding doors, people are peering through small, circular windows that have been cut out of a blue billboard lining the north side of Fremont Street, at the corner of Main Street.
On the other side of the billboard, construction is underway on Circa, the first ground-up resort being built downtown since 1980.
Circa will be ready by December 2020, according to Stevens. Once complete, it will be the tallest tower north of the Strip and home to a new state-of-the-art sportsbook.
"With a screen of this height, we've spent a lot of time on cherry pickers, on lifts evaluating angles," Stevens said, while describing his vision of the Circa sportsbook during a June phone interview with ESPN. "Obviously, we're trying to create the best viewing experience ever designed."
Exact dimensions have not been finalized, but the video screen at the sportsbook at Circa will be three stories high and capable of showing a dozen or more games in high definition.
"It was very important to Derek that you walked into Circa from Fremont and you could see the sportsbook from anywhere in the casino," said Rob Baker, field operations manager for Tre Builders, a construction company working on the new resort.
Stevens is consulting with Daktronics, the company that built the Atlanta Falcons' Halo Board, a 360-degree, 62,000-square-foot video display that hangs in the center of Mercedes Benz Stadium and cost more than $20 million. The videoboard Stevens is dreaming for Circa is said to be in that price range.
"We've got a high level of experience in the sports world," said Josh Francois, director of western region of spectaculars for Daktronics. "And as sportsbooks become more and more popular, we're trying to take that experience and feeling and put it inside a casinos and in the sportsbooks. Derek is out to build the coolest sportsbook ever."
Circa will feature the longest outdoor bar on Fremont Street Experience, a parking garage designed for ride-sharing (dubbed "Garage Mahal") and a multitiered swimming pool/amphitheater with another giant video screen. Its centerpiece, though, will be the sportsbook.
The sportsbook will have three floors, stadium seating, an overhanging bar and a two-story production studio for the Vegas Stats and Information Network, a Las Vegas-based media company that features legendary broadcaster and bettor Brent Musburger.
Stevens is an investor in VSiN.
"He is sparing no expense to build the world's biggest sportsbook," Brian Musburger, CEO of VSiN, told ESPN.
From bettor to bookmaker
At 51, Stevens is stocky with blond hair and a toothy grin. He met his wife, Nicole, on the first day of first grade, and they have had two daughters and a son together.
Cocktail in hand, Stevens is affable and, unlike other casino owners and executives, readily approachable. He can be found on his regular seat at the end of the aptly named Long Bar at The D, his other property on Fremont Street and the second spot to open a Circa sportsbook.
He is a fun-loving man of the people in many ways, as well as a passionate sports bettor who sweats out big decisions and laments bad beats like the next guy.
• In January, Stevens bet $100,000 that either Duke, Gonzaga, Michigan or Kansas would win the college basketball national championship. It turned out to be a six-figure sting after Virginia won it all.
• In 2018, he was holding a ticket potentially worth $1 million if his beloved Wolverines won the NCAA tournament. Michigan reached the championship game -- allowing Stevens to hedge his bet along the way -- before eventually falling to Villanova.
"He's an everyday sports bettor," said Mike Palm, vice president of operations at The D and Golden Gate. "He might bet a $1,000 on a game; he might $5,000 on a game. He's actually more of an avid baseball bettor than anything. We talk baseball every morning."
Now, Stevens is becoming a bookmaker, and his career on the other side of the counter began with a big loss.
Roughly three weeks before the new sportsbook at Golden Gate opened, Stevens met with members of his bookmaking staff in an upstairs conference room of the casino.
Some executives were nervous about the promotion planned for opening day of the new book: They weren't planning to charge any vig -- no juice, no bookmaker's commission on losing wagers.
Stevens, Palm, sportsbook director Matt Metcalf and sportsbook manager Chris Bennett were at the meeting. They went around the room, painting worst-case scenarios and asking questions like, "How much could we possibly lose?"
"We didn't know, because we didn't know what type of volume to expect," Palm said. "I asked if we were really prepared to blow five, six, $700,000 on opening day."
Sportsbook manager Chris Bennett finally interjected: "You know, we could win, right?"
On June 1, the opening Saturday, the sportsbook at the Golden Gate went ahead with the promotion, offering no juice on the day's baseball games, the Champions League Final and Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. For example, bettors could take the favored Boston Bruins at -280 and the St. Louis Blues at +280, when, with normal vig, bookmakers would have offered around +240 on the underdog.
The previous night, Stevens held a dinner event to honor the town's bookmakers. Most of the bookies stayed overnight at the Golden Gate and were given the opportunity to make the first bets after the morning ribbon-cutting ceremony. While the bookmakers placed the initial wagers, a line of bettors formed and stretched out into the slot machines. There were sharp bettors with backpacks full of cash standing next to average Joes with looks of "What the hell is going on?" on their faces.
The line had dissipated by 9:30 a.m., and by the time the final games wound down, the little sportsbook at the Golden Gate had taken more than $800,000 in bets and received a ton of publicity. The only problem? They lost more than $100,000 on the day.
"We couldn't buy a decision," Metcalf said, looking back on opening day. "I think we had six baseball decisions, and I think one of them went our way. We lost the soccer game, the hockey game. We couldn't win a game, but I'm not complaining. I think we got more than our money's worth."
Sweating the future, honoring the past
It has now been a month since Circa Sports began taking bets as Nevada's newest bookmakers. Metcalf and Bennett are experienced bookmakers, used to dealing with the daily sweats that must be endured on that side of the counter. Stevens, on the other hand, is not.
"I've had a few different emotions in the last two weeks that I've never had in my life previously," he joked during a recent appearance on VSiN. "I've never sat on the back end of an eight-team parlay with one to go. That's happened a few times recently with a couple $100,000 payouts."
As the new bookmaker in town, Circa Sports has generated interest by offering wagers and odds that aren't found at most Las Vegas books. For example, you can bet "Yes/No" on every NFL team winning the Super Bowl; same for the odds to win next year's NBA championship. For example, you can take the Los Angeles Lakers at +300 or lay -405 that they won't win the 2020 title.
"Ultimately," Metcalf said, "we're here to take bets."
"They're there to let the customer play," said Richie Baccellieri, the founder of Stadium Tech, a prominent software provider to several Nevada sportsbooks, including Circa Sports. "The book is servicing the player, and that is the way it should be. They're running what I'll call an old-style or traditional betting operation."
The old-school approach is not by accident. Paying homage to Vegas' past is Stevens' style. In fact, the last operating Sigma Derby machine in Vegas -- the game that he made his first bet on -- now resides upstairs in Vintage Vegas section at The D.
On the Friday before the Circa book opened at Golden Gate, Stevens hosted a dinner for bookmakers at the renowned Joe Vicari's Andiamo Italian Steakhouse. Most of the longest-tenured bookmakers in Las Vegas were in attendance.
Menu choices included filet mignon, a bone-in ribeye, salmon and Paglio e Fielo, an Italian chicken dish. Table talk among the bookmakers centered on everything from the evolving American sports betting landscape to whether artificial intelligence might lead to the extinction of the bookmaking profession.
Stevens stood up early during the event and made a toast.
"We couldn't have started up this business without all of your help, and lot of our inspiration really came from things that you've built and things that you've made," he said. "We're just truly honored that all of you are willing to spend your Friday night with us tonight. Thank you.
"This is a tip of the cap to all the bookmakers in the city, who without them we wouldn't be where we are today."