Pac-12 to bring basketball tourney to MGM Grand Garden

It was time for a change.

The Pac-12 Conference’s decision to move its men’s basketball tournament from downtown Los Angeles to the Strip for the next three years wasn’t a tough sell by commissioner Larry Scott to his membership. He had a dying entity on his hands, and his presidents realized this was the best way to breathe life into it.

“We appreciate Los Angeles’ efforts, but we’ve tried looking at everything the conference is doing with a fresh set of eyes,” Scott said Tuesday after the official announcement that the MGM Grand Garden will host the Pac-12 tournament starting next March and continuing through 2015. “But with supporting new things, we wanted to break new ground.” The 2013 tournament will be March 13 to 16.

Scott said it didn’t make sense financially to maintain the status quo at the 19,000-seat Staples Center, where the conference had been holding its tournament since reviving it in 2002 and attendance has declined in each of the last four years. The Grand Garden is expected to hold 13,000 to 14,000 for the Pac-12 tournament.

The Pac-12 announced Monday that its women’s tournament will move from Los Angeles to Seattle.

“Like any major decision, I laid out the business case to our presidents,” Scott said. “I had vetted my presidents about Las Vegas back in October, and there was no real opposition at that time, which allowed us to proceed with our negotiations with Las Vegas Events and the MGM.”

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority did an economic impact study of the Pac-12 tourney and estimates 30,000 visitors generating $20 million in nongaming revenue for the city. By comparison, the 2011 Mountain West Conference tournament, which had UNLV as a participant, did around $6 million in nongaming revenue. Las Vegas Events president Pat Christenson said the opportunity to bring a major conference to town was too good an opportunity to pass up.

“We think that’s going to be a very attractive dynamic to the Pac-12’s fan base,” said Christenson, who along with MGM Grand president and COO Scott Sibella helped broker the deal with the Pac-12. “To have that kind of proximity to the Strip will be huge. We want it to be more than just about the basketball. It has to be in order for it to be successful.”

The Pac-12 is late to the Las Vegas basketball party.

The Mountain West has been holding its tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center for the past six years. The West Coast Conference just wrapped up its fourth consecutive year at Orleans Arena, and the Western Athletic Conference just finished its second year at the Orleans.

But the Pac-12 has something no other conference can claim — its tournament is being held on the Strip, where fans want to congregate and take advantage of the entertainment, dining, shopping and gambling options that are within walking distance of the MGM Grand.

For the MGM, its long-awaited initial venture into college basketball could turn out to be a profitable one if the LVCVA’s projections are close to being accurate.

“We were always open to doing basketball, but it had to be the right fit,” Sibella said, noting the MGM’s long-standing desire not to tie up the Grand Garden for an extended period with a sporting event. “We felt it was the right conference, with schools that relate to our customer base, and it was possible to do.

“At the end of the day, it’s about conventions, filling the arena and filling (hotel) rooms.”

The fact that the Grand Garden is segregated from the casino, specifically the sports book, made it much easier for Scott to sell his presidents on Las Vegas.

“I wasn’t concerned about it being a hurdle,” Scott said. “But once we walked through the facility and saw we could take our student-athletes through the back entrance and not expose them to the casino, it definitely made it easier to convince some of our membership.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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