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A ‘$1 billion investment’: UNR basketball may get new home under casino plan

RENO — The University of Nevada’s basketball team could have a new off-campus home by 2026 under an ambitious 10-year expansion plan that Reno’s largest hotel-casino announced Wednesday.

The estimated $1 billion private capital investment will be the biggest in the city’s history, according to officials of the Grand Sierra Resort and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve.

In addition to the new 10,000-seat sports, concert and special events arena, the expansion plans for the 140-acre property include a new 800-room hotel tower, 300 “affordable” riverfront residential units to help address workforce housing shortages, a golf center and Las Vegas-like water shows in addition to other upgrades, the company said.

“The vision is to transform GSR into a destination where community, sports and entertainment come together,” resort owner Alex Mereulo, who also is the majority owner of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, said during a news conference Wednesday.

Mereulo and University of Nevada President Brian Sandoval confirmed they’ve been exploring a partnership for some time between the resort and the basketball team, “which could make the arena their home beginning with the fall 2026 season.”

They said no public money will be involved in the financing.

“The investment will be at least $1 billion,” Mereulo told a crowd of more than 100 at the formal announcement Wednesday in a nightclub just off the casino floor as a dozen Nevada cheerleaders cheered. “This will be the home of the Wolf Pack.”

Expansion details

The new arena would cover approximately 300,000 square feet (27,871 square meters), including suites and premium hospitality clubs. A rendering of the arena indicated it would be built in the parking lot of the existing hotel-casino.

Sandoval, a 1986 Nevada graduate who served two terms as governor before he was appointed university president in 2020, said the school is “excited to explore the opportunity to partner with Alex Mereulo and Grand Sierra Resort as they develop a state-of-the-art arena and entertainment district that is unprecedented in Northern Nevada.”

“It will create what I think is the greatest sports venue in the country,” Sandoval said.

In an interview with the AP prior to the news conference, Sandoval reflected on how college sports have changed: When he was a student, casino advertising was prohibited at sports venues, even in Nevada, where gambling has long been legal.

“I think there’s been a recognition that sports betting has proliferated throughout the country and that it’s regulated strictly and appropriately, and you can have this balance between the gaming industry and college sports,” he said.

Nevada basketball coach Steve Alford told the crowd the arena would have a huge impact on recruiting.

“Now, as we get into a new era of basketball and how we go about doing our business, with the NIL (Name Image Likeness), with the transfer portal, to be able to sell this on top of our community, on top of our university, it just puts us at a whole ‘nother level. It’s a whole ‘nother student athlete that we’re going to be able to get into homes and talk to,” Alford said.

Developing partnership

Nevada Athletic Director Stephanie Rempe told reporters a lot of work already has been put into examining the partnership and one of the next steps will be to brief the state Board of Regents, which would have to sign off on any final agreement. But she said she’s confident the deal will come together.

“Do I think it’s going to happen? Absolutely,” Rempe said. “But we can’t get ahead of ourselves in the process. We need to make sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed and the right people who make final decisions about the university are well versed and supportive. And we’ll continue to see how that plays out.”

Nevada, of the Mountain West Conference, has played its games on campus at the 11,500-seat Lawlor Events Center since the center opened in 1983. Before that, the Wolf Pack played in a convention center south of downtown.

The 2,000-room resort, located along Interstate 80 a couple miles from the main downtown casino drag, boasted the largest casino floor in North America when it opened as the MGM in 1978. It later flew under the banners of Bally’s and the Reno Hilton. It’s been the Grand Sierra Resort since 2006, and under control of Mereulo’s current ownership group since 2011.

Schieve said the historic investment would be a “true game changer for our community … a massive win for our citizens, a win for the University of Nevada and a win for tourism.”

The investment would be the biggest in a Reno casino property since the Silver Legacy, at an estimated cost of $230 million, opened in 1995. A shopping mall project that’s partly opened and remains in the works has an estimated price tag of $600 million.

Last year, Las Vegas hosted Sweet 16 games for the NCAA basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena on the Strip. But before that, the NCAA Tournament had avoided Nevada altogether because sports gambling is legal here. The governing body for collegiate athletics even had a policy prohibiting its championship events from being played in Nevada.

With legal sports betting spreading across the country, the NCAA now has no qualms about crowning its champions in Las Vegas. Others include hockey’s Frozen Four in 2026 and the Final Four in 2028.

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