LAS VEGAS – The Madness starts early here.
It used to be that the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament was the time when hoteliers, restaurateurs and the rest of the hospitality and gambling industries looked forward to the third weekend in March, when fans bored with office pools descended on the hotels and their casinos and sports books to watch (and bet on) college basketball.
How far we have come, from the days when the NCAA was so terrified of any association with gambling that it gave ‘Vegas the hands-off treatment. Now, not only has conference tournament time transformed this place into the mecca of college hoops in the West, but the West Regional Sweet 16 will be back here in two weeks. And the 2028 Final Four will take place in Las Vegas, at Allegiant Stadium.
What changed? It’s hard to tell, although when the Orleans Arena landed a 2006 game between Kansas and Florida it may have softened college administrators’ resistance to playing within walking distance of a casino. And the Supreme Court’s decision in 2018 to strike down state laws against sports betting may have convinced NCAA and individual schools’ administrators that it was foolish to continue to demonize Las Vegas.
The effect is clear: Five Division I conferences based in the Pacific and Mountain time zones now hold their conference tournaments on or near to the Strip. The Big Sky, which plays its conference tournament in Boise, is the only conference in this region not represented here.
When you think of it, should we maybe blame Wayne Gretzky?
Seriously. When Gretzky’s Kings and the New York Rangers played an outdoor exhibition game in September, 1991, in a temporary arena in the Caesars Palace parking lot usually used for boxing, it’s safe to say the conditions weren’t ideal for hockey. The aftereffect, however, was that a number of casinos began construction of their own indoor events centers, which ultimately led to the construction of T-Mobile Arena and the NHL’s Golden Knights. But we digress.
T-Mobile has hosted the Pac-12 men’s tournament this week, which ended with Saturday night’s championship game between UCLA and Arizona. The Michelob Ultra Arena at the Mandalay Bay Resort was the home of this year’s Pac-12 women’s tournament, which finished last Sunday with Washington State shocking UCLA in the championship game.
The Mountain West Conference has played 21 of its 24 conference tournaments here, from 2000 through 2003 and continuously since 2007, at conference member UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center. And yet they weren’t the first, because the forerunner of the Big West, the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, played its 1994 and ’95 tournaments at UNLV, then a member of that conference.
The West Coast Conference and WAC arrived took were next, moving their tournaments in 2009 to the same place, the aforementioned Orleans Arena, located a couple of miles south of the Strip.
The Pac-12 men’s tournament arrived in 2013, moving into the MGM Grand Garden after a decade at Staples Center, and relocated to T-Mobile when it opened in 2017. The women’s tournament, which had been played in Mac Court in Eugene, HP Pavilion in San Jose, Galen Center and Staples in L.A. and Key Arena in Seattle, moved to the MGM Grand Garden in 2019 and the Mandalay Bay Events Center in 2020, which was renamed the Michelob Ultra Arena in 2021 as part of a naming rights deal.
And the Big West was the last to make the permanent move, though in its earlier existence as the Pacific Coast Athletic Association it spent two years at the Thomas and Mack when UNLV was still a conference member.
After 20 continuous seasons in Anaheim, split between the Convention Center and Honda Center, the conference played its 2021 tournament at Michelob Ultra in a bubble because of COVID-19. That opened some eyes in the conference offices, and in June of 2021 the Big West announced a permanent relocation to the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, 12 miles east of the Strip.
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What this means? Everybody stays on the Strip anyway. Example: New York New York is located right next to T-Mobile Arena, but I’ve seen shirts from WAC, Big West and Mountain West teams, as well as UCLA, Oregon, ASU, USC … and, more than anything, Arizona red, white and blue. Wildcat fans traditionally come to Vegas in force, pretty much turning the arena into McKale Center North, and it’s been no different this year.
And consider this: In my walk from the hotel to the arena for Thursday’s late USC-Arizona State game, I saw people wearing Arizona gear, sitting at outdoor tables watching TV monitors showing … the Arizona-Stanford game. Maybe they couldn’t afford or couldn’t get game tickets but wanted to be part of the atmosphere. Or maybe they were saving their energy, and voices, for the semifinals and finals.
Las Vegas Events, the tourism arm of the city’s convention and visitors authority, sponsors the WCC tournament and also reportedly provides funding to the Mountain West and Pac-12 tournaments, according to the On3 sports business website.
Big West Commissioner Dan Butterly said during his pre-tournament news conference earlier in the week that the Big West hadn’t received any sponsorship money, but added, “I’ve had a great experience with Las Vegas Events when I was at the Mountain West. Obviously Las Vegas Events continues to evaluate the Big West, and we’re hopeful we can get some resoures from them in 2024.”
Las Vegas has also snared the 2026 Frozen Four NCAA hockey championships. A Formula One race will be held here in November, to go with two NASCAR race weekends. The Super Bowl will be here in 2024, and the College Football Playoff is up for discussion as well. Nor have people here given up on luring the Big Sky tournament at some point.
And if ‘Vegas wants a clean sweep of the West? When UCLA and USC depart for the Big Ten in the fall of 2024, why shouldn’t Las Vegas Events offer that conference Allegiant Stadium once every four years or so?