LAS VEGAS — It was a wild weekend here for sports fans.
Hockey. Baseball. Auto racing. Mixed Martial Arts. Football. And college basketball. Lots and lots of college basketball.
Five different conferences are holding their postseason tournaments here. The Mountain West is at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Pac-12 is at T-Mobile Arena. The West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference are at the Orleans Arena and Michelob Ultra Arena. The Big West is in Henderson at the Dollar Loan Center.
Want to catch a game? No problem.
By the time the last nets are cut down late Saturday night, 100 men’s and women’s games will have been contested with 10 automatic bids handed out to the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Tournaments.
In between, you’ll see ranked teams prevail and get upset. There’ll be Cinderella stories, even though nobody wants to be tagged as such. Fans will congregate in the concourses, talking hoops, checking their bets, making dinner plans and seeking entertainment options.
That’s what happens at what the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority likes to call “The Greatest Arena on Earth.”
For years, conferences steered clear of Vegas. The gambling element worried the presidents of the various universities and they didn’t think fans would want to come here.
In 1994, the Big West decided to hold its tourney at the Thomas & Mack, which didn’t have a sportsbook. Three years later, the WAC, with its 16 teams and four-quadrant alignment, took over on UNLV’s home court. There was always hand-wringing that the Runnin’ Rebels had an unfair advantage. But the reality is UNLV had just one conference tourney title — in 1998 when it beat New Mexico in the WAC title game.
In its first 24 years in the Mountain West, UNLV has three titles (2000, 2007, 2008). So it’s not like it has dominated.
For me, the key that unlocked the door to this cornucopia of college hoops came in 2009 when the WCC moved its tourney from campus sites to the Orleans Arena. Yes, there was still the hand-wringing over the sports books. But then-commissioner Michael Gilleran was smart enough to understand that the arena was segregated from the casino. He also negotiated that no WCC tourney games would be on the Orleans’ sportsbook’s betting board.
The crowds showed up. The games looked great on television. Gonzaga beat Saint Mary’s and the final was sold out. The other conferences looked at the WCC and decided they wanted in.
Larry Scott revived the sagging fortunes of the Pac-12 tournament by moving it from Los Angeles to the MGM Grand Garden. The Mountain West had learned its lesson from its ill-fated decision to leave Vegas for Denver and suffered two years of indifference before returning to the Thomas & Mack.
What’s ironic is that none of the venues being used this week are attached to a sportsbook. Frankly, that is archaic thinking because anyone with a smartphone has a sportsbook in their hands. Mobile betting in Nevada has grown by leaps and bounds and by having a sportsbook app, a person can ager during the game they’re watching and enhance the experience.
The NCAA may not like it but that’s the world in 2023. So when its West Regional gets played here at T-Mobile Arena on March 23-25, thousands of fans will be wagering as they watch.
But as we shift into high gear this week and await the sea of fans that are here along those who will be arriving here next week for the beginning of the Big Dance that will pack the books, the future of these tournaments may be changing. That’s because the conferences themselves are undergoing change. UCLA and USC are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big 10. San Diego State may be leaving the Mountain West for the Pac-12. Gonzaga is being courted. BYU is leaving the WCC for the Big 12.
These moves, and the others that are sure to follow will impact what the conferences do. Will they remain here? Will others join them? There’s so much uncertainty.
I can’t help but think that Las Vegas will remain a popular destination for conference tournaments. The fans like it. The players seem to enjoy it. Certainly our local economy benefits from it. But will we see five tournaments going forward? There’s still room for other leagues to set up shop here. The Big Sky, for one, should consider playing here, perhaps at the South Point Arena, which can seat 4,000 or more if needed and would be an ideal location for that conference. Maybe the Big 12 might want to come here some day.
You should never say never. This isn’t the 1980s anymore.