March Madness is coming to Vegas after years of avoiding it

LAS VEGAS (AP) — March Madness has long been a huge draw for gamblers who have come to Las Vegas to place their bets on the tournament while partying in the city’s famous casinos. But they were limited to watching the games on television; catching one in person here was impossible not so long ago.

That changes this week when UCLA takes on Gonzaga and UConn takes on Arkansas at T-Mobile Arena on the Vegas Strip.

The NCAA tournament avoided the city until very recently because sports betting is legal there. The governing body of collegiate athletics even had a policy prohibiting its championships from being held in Nevada.

As legal sports betting spreads across the country, the NCAA no longer hesitates to crown its champions in Las Vegas. The Sweet 16 games scheduled here Thursday are among several championship events the NCAA has awarded the city.

Others include hockey’s Frozen Four in 2026 and the Final Four in 2028.

It’s no longer the Las Vegas of Jerry Tarkanian, at least in the eyes of the NCAA, who fought for many years with the late Hall of Fame coach who sued the governing body and settled in 1998 for $2.5 million.

Between Tarkanian’s outlaw image of UNLV and the general feeling that sports betting – legal or otherwise – was inherently bad for athletics, Las Vegas has been an underdog in the sports world for decades. .

It was also a much smaller city when Tarkanian ruled. Fewer than 800,000 people lived in the metro area when the Rebels won the 1990 national championship, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Last year, that figure was 2.3 million.

Professional sports leagues have taken note of the additional potential paying customers and now the NFL and NHL have teams here. The Oakland Athletics are also considering a move here, and an NBA expansion team could be on the way in the coming years.

Even before the influx of professional teams, Las Vegas began to make progress, especially in basketball. All 30 teams compete in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, which is also home to USA Basketball. Five college conferences play their men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in the area.

Opinions on legalized sports betting have also shifted considerably, getting a big boost in 2018 when the US Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

The federal ban prevented states from regulating sports betting, making exceptions for Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon, which already had legal sports betting in one form or another. Only Nevada has allowed single game betting.

“Thirty years ago, in the Tarkanian era, I’m sure they were pretty skeptical of Las Vegas,” said Steve Hill, CEO and Chairman of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “I think over time they probably softened. We’ve had conference tournaments here and we’ve had a real partnership, it seems now, that didn’t exist before the law change.

The Supreme Court’s decision cleared the way for any state to legalize sports betting, and soon many would begin the process. That left the NCAA – already showing signs of drifting towards softening its stance on Nevada – with no choice but to allow its championship events even where sports betting was legal.

“That was the impetus,” said NCAA men’s basketball vice president Dan Gavitt. “Once that changed, we were excited from a basketball championship perspective to bring March Madness to such a great city that has embraced college basketball with conference championships for a while. .”

Jim Livengood, when he was UNLV’s athletic director in 2009-13, worked behind the scenes with his colleagues before the federal ban was overturned to change the NCAA’s position on Las Vegas.

Even after retiring in 2013, Livengood remained a Las Vegas defender as he turned to the board.

“I thought the tide was starting to turn probably in ’16, ’17, ’18,” Livengood said. “We were making really serious progress.”

In 2019, the NCAA officially changed its policy regarding championships in Las Vegas — and it was eager to plant a flag.

NCAA officials told Las Vegas representatives to skip the usual first-bid process on the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament and head straight to a regional.

“I think it was very unusual, but it reflects the fact that there was pent-up demand for Las Vegas,” Pac-12 conference commissioner George Kliavkoff said.


AP College Sports Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed.


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