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Vegas is back on NCAA’s radar — this time in a good way

Updated March 24, 2023 - 7:44 pm

Once the law restricting sports gambling in most states was struck down in 2018, the NCAA immediately turned to Las Vegas as a site for its championship events.

The West Regional of the NCAA basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena that will conclude Saturday night is a direct result of that change, said Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president of basketball.

“That was the first domino that fell,” said Gavitt. “The NCAA didn’t change the policy of hosting NCAA championships until that happened. … That was the first step in the process, but it was very soon thereafter that the NCAA Board of Governors changed the policy and we the basketball committee were ready to explore the opportunity right away.”

Las Vegas’ ability to successfully host five college basketball tournaments annually in March also helped the NCAA expedite the Big Dance landing here, once it was an option.

“I think that there is good history here with those conference tournaments, and it’s very accessible, certainly from the West Coast, but from all over the country with all of the direct flights here,” Gavitt said. “Added on top of all the hotel and entertainment options, it was a no-brainer.”

Las Vegas was long viewed as a basketball city with the success of UNLV in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, culminating with the Runnin’ Rebels winning the 1990 NCAA championship. But along with that success came issues between the NCAA and legendary UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian.

“The city has such a huge history with college basketball, UNLV has had such an immense impact on sports and Las Vegas,” said Steve Hill, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO. “But also back then was the start of some of the issues we had with the NCAA.”

Aside from the rift between Tarkanian and the NCAA, the issues Hill alluded to were tied to concerns surrounding gambling. Those persisted until the law was changed in 2018, although Nevada officials long noted they were the gold standard of regulating sports betting. Hill believes the state’s regulatory efforts, in part, led to that change.

“The work that the state has done to make sure that there’s such great guardrails around that effort lead to the proliferation (of sports betting) around the country,” Hill said. “It opened up the city for a real partnership with the NCAA.”

The pair of long weekends that are the first two weeks of the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament have long been two of the busiest annually in Southern Nevada. But hosting games tied to the event takes the city to the next level.

“The city on March weekends is already full on March weekends because people just love going to sports books and watch parties to watch these games remotely already,” Hill said. “I don’t know that we can get more full than completely full. But it is certainly great to have them be here and give fans here and across the country the chance to experience Las Vegas.”

The throng of fans who already came to Las Vegas to watch the first week of tournament games played into the decision to have Las Vegas skip hosting the first rounds, as is routinely the case when a new market is introduced, opting to start with a regional instead.

“That was an intentional move by Las Vegas and I think by us (NCAA),” Gavitt said. “I think the combination of all of those conference tournaments the week before the first and second rounds and the fact that there is history here in Las Vegas of it being very busy anyways for first and second rounds … it just made the most sense to start with a regional. To create some separation from the conference tournaments and the first- and second-round weekend.”

Everything wasn’t roses during this tournament week, with a pair of incidents impacting UConn’s stay.

Upon their arrival on Tuesday the Huskies found their originally booked rooms were unsuitable to stay. So, officials worked together to remedy the situation, with the team ending up at Resorts World.

Then on Wednesday UConn’s team bus was broken into while the team practiced at UNLV, with some unidentified items being stolen, according to a team spokesman.

Gavitt said the NCAA will take its first official foray into Las Vegas as a learning experience, good and bad.

“It was a surprise, an unfortunate circumstance,” Gavitt said of UConn’s hotel issues.

Although the NCAA and Las Vegas officials will use the initial NCAA tournament games as a learning experience, Gavitt said it is not a test run ahead of the Final Four taking place in 2028 at Allegiant Stadium.

“We were committed to coming for the regional long before we awarded them the men’s Final Four,” Gavitt said. “Our staff and committee here are certainly taking a lot of notes and thinking about planning for the men’s Final Four in ‘28. It is a much different scale to that weekend compared to this weekend, but we do have to consider how to do that effectively.”

The NCAA is also planning several other championship events to take place in Las Vegas outside of men’s basketball, including the 2026 Frozen Four for collegiate Division 1 hockey.

But hosting the city’s first major NCAA basketball tournament regional is a milestone for Southern Nevada.

“It’s more than just the event, it signifies how far Las Vegas has come and just how important the sports industry is to this city,” Hill said.

Contact Mick Akers at makers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2920. Follow @mickakers on Twitter.

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