Every Super Bowl Sunday, thousands of gamblers head to the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino, the largest of its kind in northern Nevada, to bet on the big game and party with fellow football fans. High rollers dine on all-you-can-eat buffets and the champagne flows in V.I.P. rooms throughout the massive complex. Long lines snake out of the William Hill Sportsbook just off the casino floor.
But the action this year was supercharged because the Super Bowl included the San Francisco 49ers, and many of the team’s fans in California, where sports betting is still illegal, crossed the border into Nevada to lay down bets and celebrate with their brethren.
Some of the fans considered traveling to Las Vegas, where the Super Bowl was played for the first time this year. But they did not want to battle the crowds only to pay daunting prices for hotels and meals. Reno may lack the buzz of Las Vegas, they said, but the self-proclaimed Biggest Little City in the World had the benefit of being affordable and convenient, roughly a four-hour drive from the Bay Area.
“I could have gone to Vegas, but everything’s hiked up there,” said Daniel Burnett, a 49ers fan from San Francisco who stayed the weekend at the Grand Sierra. “Here, everything’s in one place.”
Everything, it seems, but a 49ers win. They fell to the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime, 25-22, leaving many San Francisco fans at the casino stunned, and a few in tears.
Still, it was like Nevada’s Super Bowl overflow party with a decidedly more low-key vibe. The casino hotels in Reno do not have the fountains that grace the Bellagio on the Vegas Strip. Few people come here for midnight helicopter rides. What happens in Reno doesn’t always stay in Reno. But for regulars like Jacob and Nicole Wood, two Raiders fans who drove four hours from Clearlake, Calif., Reno is just fine.
“No way I’m paying $11,000 for a ticket in Las Vegas,” Mr. Wood said. He and his wife, who also bets on horseracing and basketball, have watched the Super Bowl in Reno for a dozen years.
In many ways, the Super Bowl highlighted anew the gap between Las Vegas and Reno. Las Vegas is an international entertainment capital known as the setting for movies like the “Ocean’s” and “Hangover” franchises. After years of being shunned by professional sports leagues, the city is now home to the Stanley Cup champion Golden Knights and the Raiders of the N.F.L.
Reno? Many casinos have shut or merged. Downtown is pockmarked by open lots. Sports? There’s a Triple A baseball franchise, the Aces, and the National Bowling Stadium.
And while Las Vegas continues to market extravagance and excess, Reno, which is less than one-quarter of the size, seems forever at a crossroads. The cities remain rivals, especially when they battle for funding in the state capital, Carson City, 30 minutes south of Reno. But when people think of Nevada, Las Vegas typically springs to mind.
“The North-South divide in Nevada is very ingrained and entrenched,” said John L. Smith, a longtime journalist from Las Vegas who now lives in Reno. “The South was jealous of the North’s power. The North was jealous of the South’s pizazz and money and growth.”
It may be hard to contemplate, but for many years Reno was Las Vegas before Las Vegas became Sin City. Founded in the 1860s as a railway hub, the city prospered during the silver and gold rushes. Reno became the divorce capital of America because couples were required to live here for only six months — lowered in later years to six weeks — before taking advantage of the state’s liberal rules for splitting up.
As divorces flooded in, so did lawyers and bankers. Hotels, casinos and other entertainment establishments sprang up. After gambling was legalized statewide in 1931, new visitors arrived. Movies that flicked at the city’s divorce industry were filmed in Reno, including “The Misfits,” starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable.
But Reno has been a city of transients, and as other states adopted “no fault” divorce laws, one of the city’s calling cards faded. By the 1950 census, Las Vegas had surpassed Reno as casinos went up on the Strip, drawing Hollywood entertainers and bigger crowds in southern Nevada.
Reno, named for a Civil War general who never stepped foot in Nevada, continues to search for a new identity. Starting in the 1980s, it was hit by a wave of casino closures and bankruptcies. The flow of gamblers coming here slowed after Native American casinos opened in California.
Motels and casinos have been knocked down to make way for redevelopment that has barely begun. Last year, an overhaul of the old Harrah’s Reno hotel and casino stalled, leaving a giant eyesore. Many of the remaining casinos are windowless, self-contained bubbles that have turned the surrounding streets into uninviting walkways.
“Downtown is at war with itself, battling the needs of the casinos for parking and open space geared toward tourists versus residential mixed-use density,” said Alicia Barber, a local historian and author of “Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City.” “We’re trying to establish a sense of place.”
Things got so bad that analysts studying the city in 2010 wondered whether Reno could turn into the Detroit of the West by 2020. In December, Allegiant Airlines — whose name is on the stadium where the Super Bowl was played — said it would no longer fly in or out of Reno, leaving just two airlines offering nonstop flights between the city and Las Vegas.
In the past decade or so, Reno has pivoted. Apple, Tesla, Panasonic and other companies have opened facilities in the area, attracting Californians in search of tech jobs and cheaper homes. The city has marketed its easy access to world-class skiing and other outdoor pursuits near Lake Tahoe.
Reno still has plenty of casinos to draw gamblers from California, Idaho, Utah and other neighboring states where sports betting has not been legalized. None has done more to attract those visitors than the Grand Sierra, which has a movie theater, a bowling alley, night clubs, a 3,000-seat theater and a Charlie Palmer steakhouse.
Chris Abraham, the senior vice president of marketing at Grand Sierra, said the resort puts on Super Bowl parties every year, but visitors were up 10 percent this year because the 49ers were in the big game. About 1,600 guests packed a ballroom and dined on Kansas City barbecue, wings and nachos. Smaller groups paid up to $2,000 for a table in the Lex Nightclub.
“A lot of people looked at Las Vegas and said it was going to be ridiculous there, I can get the same kind of experience here,” Mr. Abraham said.
As sports gambling has spread, the Grand Sierra and Reno have been offering people more reasons to visit. In 2022, the sports book was refurbished and a Chickie’s & Pete’s sports bar opened. The resort will invest about $1 billion into the 140-acre property over the next decade, including building a 10,000-seat arena.
But even with all that yet to come, Reno was still an oasis compared with Las Vegas for some fans this year.
“It feels good but extra good because the 49ers are in it,” Deron Dow, who drove from San Francisco with his girlfriend, Martha Anaya, said before the game.
And it beat paying the prices and fighting the crowds in Las Vegas.
“Vegas would have been way worse,” Mr. Dow said.