LAS VEGAS -- During two weeks of conference tournament fervor last month, fans of 41 programs across four leagues descended upon Las Vegas to watch college basketball -- among other, perhaps more hedonistic, pursuits. A week later, amid the frenzy of NCAA tournament week, nearly all of Vegas' 170,000 hotel rooms were occupied. On the Thursday and Friday of the tournament, lines for the casino sportsbooks formed well before sunrise.
There is no city that truly embraces and celebrates the March Madness phenomenon like Vegas, and yet it remains a forbidden home in the eyes of the NCAA. The governing body continues to refuse to hold a championship of any kind (basketball, hockey, gymnastics, golf, you name it) in Las Vegas or the state of Nevada because of sports wagering. Section 4, Article 5 of the NCAA General Administrative Guidelines states the following: "No predetermined or non-predetermined session of an NCAA championship may be conducted in a state with legal wagering that is based on single-game betting on the outcome of any event (i.e., high school, college or professional) in a sport in which the NCAA conducts a championship."
With the U.S. Supreme Court potentially clearing a path for legalized sports gambling across the United States as early as April 2, the NCAA may soon be forced to revisit this policy. NCAA championships are currently held in 42 states plus the District of Columbia, the majority of which are expected to explore regulation about sports gambling if the Supreme Court overturns the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), as many industry insiders expect.
The NCAA will have to reckon with its long-held and arguably antiquated sentiments connecting gambling and the integrity of its games, though the organization appears to be in no real hurry.
When contacted multiple times for this article, the NCAA offered this very succinct response on their stance on Las Vegas holding an NCAA championship of any kind: "We do not have a comment at this time."
March Madness has accounted for two of the busiest weekends in Las Vegas over past the two years, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and that trend will likely continue when this year's numbers are calculated.
Hotel occupancy rates during the first week of the 2016 NCAA tournament in Las Vegas came in at No. 1 (98.8 percent occupancy rate), and in 2017, it was tied for second (98.5 percent) -- with the second week of the tournament. Multiple sportsbooks in Las Vegas said the first four days of the NCAA tournament (Thursday-Sunday) are their busiest four consecutive days of the year and combine to top the surge they see for the Super Bowl, which is still their biggest one-day event.
With four games often taking place at the same time around the country during the first two rounds, there is arguably no better place to be in the country than at a Las Vegas sportsbook or one of the countless viewing parties on The Strip. Each location offers its visitors a comfortable seat in front of four big screens with a betting window, a beer and a hot dog within arm's reach.
"If someday we get the NCAA's blessing to go ahead and do postseason events, we certainly aren't going to go after the first and second round because we're not going to top what we already have," said Pat Christenson, the president of Las Vegas Events. "There's no place you'd rather be than right here."
Christenson has been instrumental in developing and recruiting special events to Las Vegas for more than 35 years.
"In the last bid cycle, we were actually asked to bid," Christenson said, with the bid dependent on the unlikely contingencies that the Supreme Court made a ruling and the NCAA subsequently revised its anti-Vegas policy. "So we literally bid on everything, but nothing happened. What is hard for us is that they would prefer to go to sites with unregulated sports betting rather than one with regulated sports betting. It's hypocritical, but it's only a matter of time before it happens. And when it does, Vegas will finally get in the mix."
'A happening' for Pac-12
Larry Scott became the commissioner of the Pac-10 in 2009, two years before the conference expanded and became the Pac-12 in 2011. He had a long list of priorities when he took the job, and one was trying to figure out a way to revive the men's basketball tournament, which was dying a slow death at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles has historically been a basketball hotbed, but it proved to be an apathetic host site for the conference tournament if USC and UCLA were not playing -- and sometimes even the promise of Trojans/Bruins was not enough. In 2012, USC and UCLA (both in the midst of down years) played in the opening round of the conference tournament and drew an announced crowd of 5,973. "That was the official figure," said one conference official. "We probably could have played the game at a local high school."
"There weren't big numbers of fans from other schools outside of USC and UCLA traveling in for the tournament in Los Angeles," Scott said. "The fans who came were just coming to watch basketball. There was not a lot of excitement about coming to L.A. for whatever reason. As we thought about options, Las Vegas represented the potential to create a real buzz and excitement for fans traveling not just to watch basketball but to enjoy the whole experience, and that's exactly what has happened."
The Pac-12 moved its men's basketball tournament to Las Vegas in 2013. Despite holding the event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena -- an older and smaller facility than Staples Center -- the Pac-12 drew a larger crowd than in any of the previous three years in Los Angeles. It was a number that steadily grew from 63,750 in its first year to 77,496 in 2016 before the tournament moved to the new T-Mobile Arena and drew a conference record 87,910 over the 11-game event last year. The Pac-12 announced this month that it would also be moving the women's tournament from Seattle to Las Vegas for the next two years.
"It's really become a happening, which we didn't have in Los Angeles," Scott said. "I see the same fans come year after year, and they circle the date, and they know they're going to make the trip with their friends. It is their annual excuse to make a trip to Las Vegas. No matter what, they're going to come out, they're going to see great hoops, support their school, and regardless of what happens, they're going to have a great time."
The West Coast Conference, Mountain West Conference and Western Athletic Conference were already holding their men's and women's basketball tournaments in Las Vegas by the time the Pac-12 opted to relocate. That actually made the decision easier for Scott as he spoke to each conference commissioner about why Las Vegas was the best option.
"It helped me get comfortable with potential concerns about being around casinos and being in Las Vegas and having university administrators and presidents here," Scott said. "I talked to the other conference commissioners, and it alleviated those concerns. It was still a leap of faith for a conference of our stature, but it worked out great. It has been a first-class experience for the teams and fans who love coming here."
Trip about more than hoops
The T-Mobile Arena was a sea of Arizona cardinal and navy before the Wildcats beat USC, 75-61, in the Pac-12 men's basketball championship game on March 10. The Wildcats were playing in the final for the second straight season and sixth in the past eight years. No team has benefited more from the conference moving the tournament to Las Vegas than UA. The MGM Grand Garden Arena and the T-Mobile Arena have effectively served as "McKale Center West" during the conference tournament.
"The Arizona fan base really embraced the move," Scott said. "A lot of those fans drive here, and they love coming here each year, and I think they like the fact that it is a neutral city. They are not going into another school's city. So Arizona fans really saw this as an opportunity and a challenge to own the crowd. Every year I've been here, whenever Arizona is playing, it feels like a home crowd."
It is about a six-hour drive or a one-hour flight to Las Vegas from Tucson. That's slightly shorter than the trip to Los Angeles, but there is something more appealing about a road trip to Vegas. The common complaints from many Arizona fans about the tournament in Los Angeles was that there was next to nothing to do in Downtown L.A. after the games were over, as well as the rising cost of hotels in the area. The event was only attracting the hardcore fans who traveled with the team everywhere. That all changed with the move to Las Vegas.
"There's no question this tournament has become a destination spot for a lot of our fans," said Arizona coach Sean Miller. "It's a fun place to come and a fun place to watch basketball. The one thing about UA fans is that they are knowledgeable fans, so they also want to watch the other games and players too. There's no doubt this has become part of their spring."
Homecourt advantage, 1,100 miles from home
Moments after Gonzaga beat BYU to win the West Coast Conference tournament for the sixth straight season and eighth in the 10 years since the conference tournament moved to Las Vegas, the casino floor of The Orleans was filled with Gonzaga fans. They didn't just take over a bar or a section of the hotel; seemingly everyone walking the floor was wearing a Gonzaga hat, shirt or jersey. "They should really rename it 'The Spokane' during the tournament," said one bartender who has worked at The Orleans for 10 years. "I really think the entire city comes here. We love it. They're usually happy because they win."
"That's the way it is every year," said WCC assistant commissioner for communications Ryan McCrary, who graduated from Gonzaga. "The Gonzaga-to-civilian ratio is overwhelmingly Gonzaga. You see red and blue everywhere. They're crowding every buffet line. They're crowding every craps table you're trying to get on. They're everywhere. It's a testament to what the team has been and done over the last few years."
Gonzaga's record at the Orleans Arena, which has hosted the WCC tournament since 2009, is 23-2. That's actually a better winning percentage (92 percent) than the Bulldogs have enjoyed at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, where it has the nation's fifth-best home winning percentage over the past decade at 90.3 percent.
"This tournament is circled on everybody's calendar up there, and they've made plans to come here every year," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "It's amazing to walk out here and hear the masses when they announce the starting lineup. It's like a home game, and we're so in debt to all the people that save up so they can come here every year. Our guys love coming here every year."
When the WCC decided to move its men's and women's basketball conference tournament to The Orleans in Las Vegas in 2009, it was joining the Mountain West Conference, which has held its men's and women's basketball tournaments at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas every year since 2000 -- except for a failed three-year run in Denver from 2004 to 2006.
"The West Coast Conference tournament had been held on campuses, mainly in California, for over 20 years, and when Gonzaga was starting to make their run, they really wanted a neutral site and a better environment, and they didn't want to play on other campuses, so that was [a] big part of it," said Jamie Zaninovich, WCC commissioner from 2008 to 2014 and currently the Pac-12 deputy commissioner. "Gonzaga really embraced Las Vegas. Their home arena only seats 6,000, so it's a hard ticket to get, whereas the Orleans Arena can seat 9,000, so you have some Gonzaga fans from Spokane going to their first 'home' game of the season here. It's really become an annual destination for Gonzaga fans."
The trail-blazing WAC
The Western Athletic Conference was one of the first to hold its conference tournament in Las Vegas back when they held it at the Thomas & Mack Center from 1997 to 1999. The Big West Conference became the first when it held its tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in 1994 and 1995 before moving. The WAC would return to Las Vegas in 2011 and has held its men's and women's basketball tournaments at the Orleans Arena following the WCC tournament ever since.
During a six-day stretch from March 5 to March 10, the WCC, WAC, MWC and Pac-12 held 50 conference tournament games at three different arenas in Las Vegas and crowned seven conference championship teams that earned automatic berths to the NCAA tournament.
"It's a destination city that just meets all the requirements for a conference, teams and fans," said WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd. "The facilities are a factor, and the cost of putting on the tournament is also a big factor. The way that entertainment dollars are spent today, you have to give fans a reason other than a basketball game to come out and try to grow your tournament. Las Vegas offers fans a lot of entertainment options outside of the basketball games, aside from the obvious, from dining to golfing to shows. It's also easy and affordable to get to from just about anywhere. It's really an easy sell for fans."
There are about 170,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas, which are the most for a city in the United States by about 50,000 rooms. The abundance of rooms means that there are options for just about any price point. There are also five arenas in the city (T-Mobile Arena, Thomas & Mack Center, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Mandalay Bay Events Center and the Orleans Arena) with a 600,000-square-foot, 18,500-seat arena backed by Madison Square Garden opening in 2020. Vegas could easily become the home of six conference tournaments if the Big West (currently held in Anaheim) and Big Sky (Reno) were ever interested in moving.
"There's something for everyone here," Hurd said. "The Orleans is perfect for our conference. We don't need a 20,000-seat arena. This arena seats 9,000, which is perfect for our conference, and the hotel is, quite frankly, less expensive for our fans in terms of rooms and food, and it also costs less for us to operate the event. It's just a perfect set-up."
Runnin' Rebels not quite at home in MW tourney
One of the draws for most conferences in choosing Las Vegas as a destination for their basketball tournaments is that it is truly a neutral site. Not only is it not held on a campus, for the Pac-12, WAC and WCC, it's not even in a city or state that one of the schools in the conference is from.
That's not the case with the Mountain West Conference, which holds its men's and women's basketball tournaments at Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV. It's a fact you're quickly reminded of when you walk past the Jerry Tarkanian towel-eating statue in front of the arena. Another difference is that while the Orleans Arena is connected to a hotel and casino and the T-Mobile Arena is on The Strip, Thomas & Mack Center is a mile from the nearest resort. It's not the most ideal setup for visiting teams and fans, but it is the most cost-effective for the conference.
"As you might guess, we've heard it from the other coaches that we're playing at somebody else's gym and home floor, but our fans have made it pretty clear that this is the destination that they want to come to, and we've done everything we can to mitigate the home-court advantage," said Mountain West Conference deputy commissioner Bret Gilliland. "We remove their court and put in our own court. We restructure the bowl so there's no courtside seats. And UNLV doesn't use its home locker room, so we've done everything we can to make it a neutral site."
Despite the home-court advantage, UNLV has not won the tournament since 2008 and has not played in the final since 2013. UNLV actually isn't even the most represented fan base at the tournament. That honor would go to New Mexico, which has won the title three times since 2012 and played in the tourney semifinals four times over the past seven years. Less than four miles away at the Orleans Arena, New Mexico State has had the strongest turnout at the WAC tournament for years as the school has won the men's conference tournament seven of the last nine seasons and played in eight finals during that time.
"This region is really a special region for college basketball," said Paul Weir, who was at New Mexico State from 2007 to 2017 before taking over as the head coach at New Mexico last year. "High school basketball in the state of New Mexico is a really big deal. When you have such a history and tradition of people in these communities watching great basketball, whether it's New Mexico State or New Mexico, they develop a real fervor for it. We don't have a professional sports team to compete with so we are the pro sports teams, and they support us with that passion. The fans of both programs plan this trip a year in advance. It all culminates for this great week for New Mexico basketball fans in Las Vegas."
A party superseding the Super Bowl?
No one should ever wake up at 7 a.m. in Las Vegas unless they're catching a flight back home. You might stay up past 7 a.m., but waking up at that hour in a city devoid of clocks and responsibilities doesn't make much sense. And yet, as the sun begins to rise above The Strip on Thursday, March 15, there is already a line weaving through the casino floor of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas that stretches from the sportsbook about 100 yards through the slot machines.
The recently remodeled sportsbook at the resort is already packed two hours before the tip of the first game. The same is true for every sportsbook in the city where hotel and casinos have set up extra tables, chairs, bars, hot dog stands and betting windows to account for the demand.
"It gets bigger and bigger every year," said one bartender who works at The Chandelier bar next to the Cosmopolitan's sportsbook. "I'm usually here for the Super Bowl, and it's not like this. I mean, this crowd will be here for 12 hours today and 12 hours tomorrow just glued to those TVs. It's crazy."
For fans looking to splurge a little more on their March Madness viewing experience, the Cosmopolitan holds a "Hoops & Hops" event in a 40,000-square-foot ballroom on the fourth floor, complete with 12 22'x12' HD projection screens, a center bar surrounded by 16 more HD monitors, a hardwood basketball court and a dedicated on-site sportsbook. Admission to the party, which included an open bar for 13 hours, went for $225 each and sold out on Thursday and Friday. The party attracted more than 6,000 customers over the first three days of the tournament. You could also reserve a sofa for four at $1,800, which included an all-you-can-eat buffet and wait service as well as massage therapists offering their services in between games at an extra cost. You know, in case you had Virginia winning it all.
"What I've noticed is that this is the guys' weekend away. Maybe they were college buddies or old friends that don't live near each other anymore, but they meet from all over in Vegas every year," said Fedor Banuchi, the vice president of entertainment at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. "The groups that do this regularly have one guy that has to wake up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and get in line to place the bets and get the best table. I don't know if he lost a bet as soon as he landed, but they all have that one guy. But it's just a great atmosphere. It's one of the most popular events we have all year, and it keeps growing."
One level below "Hoops & Hops" is the Marquee Nightclub & Dayclub, a 22,000-square-foot indoor and outdoor oasis with two pools and six bars. It's no coincidence that the dayclubs in Las Vegas reopened after being closed for the winter during the weekend of the conference tournaments and were bustling during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, with every TV in the bars and cabanas showing games.
"What's funny is that maybe five years ago they would reopen in April, and gradually it has moved to the first weekend of March," Banuchi said. "I don't think it's a coincidence. We are noticing a younger crowd during March Madness, and they want to party during the day and at night."
The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook is the world's largest race and sportsbook, with 4,488 square feet of HD video screens above 19 wagering windows facing 300 lounge chairs and a 60-seat bar. That's normally enough to satisfy customers, but for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, the SuperBook also takes over the 1,500-seat International Theater, showing all the games on their giant HD screens with wagering windows set up outside.
"March Madness is a unique event in that it's the only event we have that's bigger at the beginning than at the end," said Jay Kornegay, the vice president of race and sports operations at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. "The first four days is everything. We'll handle more money on the first four days than the Super Bowl, and we'll certainly write more tickets in the first four days of the tournament than at any other time. It is four straight days of straight heavy action. It's certainly a challenge to handle the crowds at every sportsbook and every property for the first four days, but it's a good problem to have."
The biggest challenge for sportsbooks is that while the Super Bowl is a single four-hour game on one Sunday every year, the first four days of the tournament has 48 games taking place over four consecutive days that begin around 9 a.m. in Las Vegas and don't end until around 9 p.m.
"It's a long day, and that's just from the opening tip of the first game until the buzzer of the final game. We open at 6 a.m. each day and close at midnight each day, and we're busy the entire time," Kornegay said. "But it's a different demographic than any other event. The Super Bowl is usually an older crowd, and maybe you see couples, but March Madness is a 'man-cation.' It's 99 percent male crowds in here, and you have a frat party going on for four straight days, and its annual reunion for these guys who travel in groups of two to six, and they do this every year no matter what."
About 10 miles north, at the South Point, Jimmy Vaccaro, who has been one of the most prominent bookmakers in Las Vegas for more than 40 years, is watching the NCAA tournament on nine screens set up outside of his office. He opened the sportsbook at the Royal Inn in 1976 before opening the sportsbook at the Barbary Coast in 1979, and he later opened the sportsbook at the Mirage in 1989.
"It wouldn't have gotten to this point if it wasn't for the TV coverage and the ability to watch every single game in its entirety, which happened [in 2011]," said Vaccaro. "Every single point matters in Vegas, so 20 years ago, you'd have a 20-point game that had a 19-point spread with a minute left, and they'd switch to the game that just started. People would be screaming at us, and we'd scream back, 'We didn't f---ing change it! The network did!' We almost had a riot at the Barbary Coast once. Those were crazy times."
Pro leagues embrace Vegas, while NCAA lags
Over the past two years, Las Vegas sports has experienced a renaissance few inside or outside the city thought was possible even a few years ago. It began with the April 2016 opening of the $375 million, 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena, which was built to attract and house an NHL and NBA team. Two months later, the NHL awarded Las Vegas an expansion franchise, the first major professional sports franchise based in Las Vegas. The NFL then approved the Raiders' relocation to Las Vegas last March, and in October the WNBA's San Antonio Stars relocated to Las Vegas and became the Las Vegas Aces. In April, the Vegas Golden Knights are expected to win the Pacific Division in their inaugural NHL season, while the Clark County Commission is expected to sign construction bonds on the Raiders' $1.8 billion, 65,000-seat stadium, slated to open in 2020.
On the heels of sports wagering possibly being legal in other states, professional sports leagues have joined college conferences and torn down the walls they had once built between them and Las Vegas.
When the new Las Vegas Stadium opens up, it will be in line to bid on and possibly host the Super Bowl, the Pac-12 Football Championship Game and the College Football Playoff National Championship, which is not run by the NCAA. But Christenson would like to see an NCAA Regional held at the T-Mobile Arena and a Final Four held at the Las Vegas Stadium after 2022.
"Every other sports league has come around, and I'm confident the NCAA will too," Christenson said. "I just don't understand why they keep fighting this."
NCAA president Mark Emmert refused to comment for this story but has spoken about the possibility of the NCAA holding championships in Las Vegas when talking to the commissioners of the conferences holding their postseason basketball tournaments in the city.
"I think many in the leadership in the NCAA have been looking at this for quite some time, and they've looked at our experience and other conferences' experiences here, and they're very open to looking at the association's position," Scott said. "I've had Mark Emmert as our guest a couple of times, and he enjoyed his experience and was keen to hear what our experience was like, and talked to our conference presidents, and he saw things are going well. I think he saw the concerns or perceived risks are not significantly different than they would be playing the tournament in Los Angeles."
While there is a distinct possibility Las Vegas will host the Super Bowl before hosting any kind of NCAA championship, most conference officials believe it's only a matter of time before the NCAA finally accepts the city that has become the unofficial home of March Madness.
"I see it happening soon, no doubt," Gilliard said. "Folks worry about the gaming and the gambling, but this is the most regulated place there is, so it's actually going to be safer here than playing it at anywhere else. I think it's inevitable that there will be NCAA championships in Las Vegas."