Starting out in the race and sports book at the Club Cal Neva in Reno, Nevada, Yolanda Acuña has risen through the ranks of the “boys club” to become a leading figure in the Las Vegas betting community. And looking back at her career, it’s clear to see why she has been inducted into the SBC Hall of Fame.
SBC: First of all, congratulations on your induction into the hall of fame! Can you tell us a little bit about how you first started out in the betting industry? What was it that first attracted you to the sector?
So I had an uncle who worked at the Club Cal Neva in Reno, Nevada, and he told me and my then-husband to move up to Reno. He believed that we’d have a better opportunity for work and raising our kids. I initially had no intention of working, but when we arrived in Reno, our bills were considerably more expensive than I expected. I had to get a job. So I went to my uncle and asked if he had any jobs in the cage – but he thought I’d be bored doing that. He told me that they had just opened a horse room upstairs and that would be a better fit for me.
I went upstairs to see what was going on – and I can say now that it was love at first sight. That feeling then lasted for my entire career. I loved what I was doing – experiencing that high of events like the Super Bowl and March Madness. It was unbelievable.
SBC: What have been some of the stand-out moments for you in your career?
The first thing that stands out to me, which has been a constant in my career, is that I have had great mentors who have subsequently become my lifelong friends. That has been truly amazing.
I was a part of the opening of the Las Vegas Hilton SuperBook, the first state-of-the-art race and sportsbook of its kind, alongside Art Manteris. He actually hired me over lunch after I was recommended by Chris Andrews. This sportsbook was monumental at the time – so I felt incredibly privileged to be a part of that and grateful to Art Manteris for that opportunity.
Then, of course, was the opening of the Mirage under Jimmy Vaccaro – who I truly believe is the most generous bookmaker in town as far as treating his employees the best he can. He wasn’t afraid to take some of the biggest bets in the city either.
The Mirage changed the landscape on the Las Vegas Strip, and will always be super special to me. The company grew so much during the time I was working there, and alongside the opening of all the sportsbooks at each of the Las Vegas properties, it was an incredibly exciting time. We truly remained a major hub.
SBC: Why was it so important for you to lobby alongside the Nevada congressional delegation to persuade the country’s lawmakers not to impose a ban on college sports betting?
The Nevada sportsbooks were, and still are, the gold standard for compliance and regulatory standards. Of course, we did not want to lose the revenue it generated, but it was a totally slippery slope if they pushed to ban college sports betting, which was something that Washington lobbyists strongly urged, what would have been next? They wanted sportsbooks to ban college sports betting.
We obviously had lobbyists in Nevada who were working towards stopping such a ban. I was fortunate to be part of a group who went to Washington DC to present that argument to Senators. We were able to talk them through all the processes and safeguards we had in place. Eventually, the bill died.
SBC: From your experience, what would be your biggest piece of advice for those looking to start out in the betting industry?
What I would say is that if you’re running a brick and mortar venue, my number one piece of advice would be to become a ticket writer so that you can learn what happens on the frontline.
One of the main goals of your books is to offer a standout customer experience – that includes a wide range of betting options, issuing comps, providing amenities for your customers and following the guidelines set out by the gaming regulators.
SBC: And finally, what are your plans for 2022?
For 2022, as sports betting becomes more prominent, I will be taking on some consulting clients for various companies and sharing my expertise and knowledge.
And of course, I’ll be spending a lot of my time with my children and grandchildren. 2021 was the most devastating year of my life because I lost my daughter to a rare disease, amyloidosis. So these next few months will be spending time with my family and those close to me.
Yolanda Acuña will be inducted into the Sports Betting Hall of Fame in a special ceremony at the MetLife Stadium on December 1, 2021, during the SBC Summit North America conference and trade show. A full version of this interview will feature in the forthcoming issue of SBC Leaders Magazine later this week.