Who would have guessed that it would take the nationwide proliferation of sports wagering to ultimately get events like the College Football Playoff national championship, the Final Four and the Frozen Four to Las Vegas?
That’s the scenario that lies ahead thanks to a recent policy change from the NCAA.
Like the NFL, the NCAA has taken a dim view toward conducting any championship or regional tournament events in Las Vegas, though the city has had one of the nation’s best arena venues since 1981, the Thomas &Mack Center, with a capacity of nearly 18,000 seats.
The reason: The NCAA believed the close proximity of gambling would somehow taint the integrity of games and their athletes.
Over the years, the NCAA would schedule many championship events in states that had commercial casinos — Louisiana (the Mercedes-Benz Superdome), Indiana (Lucas Oil Stadium) and Missouri (The Dome at America’s Center). But the big difference between those locations and Nevada was that sports wagering was available here but not there.
Until last year.
Now, sports betting is in eight states and counting.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas began developing sporting event infrastructure with the completion of T-Mobile Arena in 2016 and next year’s introduction of the 65,000-seat, $1.8 billion Las Vegas Stadium. It already had the MGM Grand Garden, the Mandalay Bay Events Center and the smallish Orleans Arena. Those venues have taken on a variety of college tournaments from the Pac-12, Western Athletic and West Coast Athletic conferences that saw something the NCAA hasn’t experienced — an attendance boost resulting from the event being in Las Vegas.
The NCAA, headquartered in Indianapolis, probably saw the handwriting on the wall with sports betting in Indiana on the horizon. That state became the latest to legalize sports gambling last week when Gov. Eric Holcomb signed legislation not only allowing sports bets from mobile devices but authorizing the construction of two new casinos in the state.
How hypocritical would it have been to stage championship games in Indiana venues where people could place bets on their phones but not in Nevada? The decision was reached to open up championships in all states, regardless of whether they permitted gambling.
That was music to the ears of Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Steve Hill. Not only will Las Vegas be able to host the championship football game, the Final Four and the Frozen Four, it also will be able to host NCAA regional competitions and national championships for so-called minor sports such as volleyball and wrestling.
“I think it’s a real opportunity for Las Vegas, and I think it’s a real opportunity for the NCAA and for the conferences as well,” Hill said in an interview last week, noting that like most conventions and trade shows, tournament attendance bumps up by nearly 10 percent when events that could be anywhere are staged in Las Vegas.
“Everybody wants to come to Vegas,” Hill said. “It brings an excitement to the event, it brings a capacity of service that is unmatched in the United States. That combination is pretty fun. We really are the sports capital of the United States at this point, and to be able to combine that with NCAA athletics should be a pretty exciting thing to watch unfold.”
Hill said the LVCVA and its private event-planning arm, Las Vegas Events, have begun making contact with the NCAA movers and shakers who schedule events.
As former UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood told Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney and producer Clay Baker on their “Press Box” morning sports radio program, the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics will meet in Las Vegas for the first time June 7-10, 2020, with subsequent meetings in 2022 and 2024. That should be an excellent opportunity to make a first impression on decision-makers, with a tour of the new stadium, which would almost be completed at that time.
Las Vegas always does well during March Madness, but the new NCAA policy enabling the city to bid for championship events should take visitation to a new level and solidify the city’s claim as the sports capital of the United States.