Late Thursday night, the legendary sports gambler and Texas furniture entrepreneur known as “Mattress Mack” needed to get to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to place a $5.5 million wager on the Kansas Jayhawks to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. But there was a problem: He was 150 miles away in Houston and the freeway was backed up for five hours.
Mack, whose real name is Jim McIngvale, took a 45-minute helicopter ride instead. After the bird touched down at Million Air, the private terminal at the Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, Mack and his wife, Linda, went to the fast-food chain Sonic, where they shared a strawberry milkshake and a caramel milkshake to help “ease her anxiety” over the bet he was about to make. He then placed two wagers for Kansas to win the championship at +190: one for $3.3 million on the Caesars sports betting app and the other for $2.2 million through Barstool Sports. If he wins, he’ll collect $10.5 million.
“I bet on Kansas to win it all,” says McIngvale.
But McIngvale isn’t a University of Kansas fan. For those who know Mack, who owns Houston-based furniture store Gallery Furniture, his headline-grabbing bets are just business. His $5.5 million wager is a hedge against a furniture promotion he’s running at the store: If customers buy $3,000 or more worth of American-made furniture or Tempur-Pedic, Stearns & Foster or Sealy mattress, and Kansas wins, they’ll get a full refund.
Customers have until tip-off between Kansas and the University of North Carolina on Monday night to buy and take possession of the furniture. McIngvale says they already sold $10 million worth by Saturday, so he’s expecting to sell between $12 million and $14 million before the championship game.
“We’re going be keep selling, so I may have to bet a little bit more on Monday,” he says. “The promotion has been going well even though the furniture business is very soft right now. We had a great three weeks.”
Texas runs through McIngvale’s blood, so his promotion started three weeks ago with the University of Houston. They made it to the Elite Eight but lost to Villanova 50-44. Since a Texas team didn’t make it to the championships, McIngvale chose the team closest to his store geographically, so he’s now rooting for the Jayhawks to best the Tar Heels. “Thank God it wasn’t Duke or North Carolina because they’re, like, 5 miles apart—it would have been an argument,” says McIngvale.
There’s an argument to be made that it would be better for McIngvale and his business if Kansas loses. He’d lose his $5.5 million bet, but he would be able to keep all of his sales, which could top $14 million, millions more than he’d win if Kansas cuts down the net Monday night. But McIngvale disagrees: “The best-case scenario is that Kansas wins: The customers get their money back and they’ll be talking about it literally a decade to come,” he says.
McIngvale has been running these types of promotions and hedging against them with sports wagers for about 15 years, so he’s never feeling too uneasy before a game. As a traditional retailer, the 71-year-old entrepreneur has relied on gimmicks like this to keep his business alive in the era of e-commerce. Plus: “It’s a lot sexier than liability insurance,” he told Forbes during an earlier interview in February.
If he loses, it wouldn’t be the first time. Mack lost $9.5 million betting on the Cincinnati Bengals to win Super Bowl LVI in February, but he sold about $20 million worth of furniture during that promotion. The Super Bowl was only the most recent multi-million-dollar loss for McIngvale. His biggest gamble was on the Houston Astros to win the 2019 World Series. He put a total of $17 million on his hometown team over a couple of months and lost when the Astros were defeated by the Washington Nationals. But the most painful loss was during last year’s World Series, when he put down a $2 million future bet, 18 to 1, for the Astros to win the championship. He could’ve won $36 million if the Atlanta Braves hadn’t defeated the Astros.
Millions of Americans have been betting along with McIngvale during March Madness. About 45 million U.S. gamblers planned to wager a collective $3.1 billion on this year’s NCAA Men’s Division I tournament, according to a report by the American Gaming Association.
McIngvale is a betting man, but he’s also a religious man. He posts Bible verses once a day on Twitter and goes to church every week. Gambling might be frowned upon in some religious communities, but McIngvale, who is Catholic, says his church doesn’t mind. “At the church where I grew up, they were always having raffles and bazaars and they were always gambling and having bingo games,” he says, “so what the heck?”
When Kansas and UNC face off at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans on Monday night, McIngvale will be at his store, watching the game with customers. He’s paying some of the University of Houston basketball players to come and sign autographs.
“We’ll have a good time,” says McIngvale. “There will be hundreds of customers in here, watching from the store, cheering for Kansas.”