Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Monday, March 11, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas has become the lifeguard of postseason college basketball.
The city and its venues are always present to save floundering conference tournaments. After a 10-year stint in Los Angeles with diminishing crowds and interest, the Pac-12 this week is the latest conference to seek rescue in Las Vegas.
Joining the Mountain West Conference, the Western Athletic Conference and the West Coast Conference in town, the Pac-12 will host its men’s basketball tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena starting Wednesday.
“Then right after that you go into March Madness, where there’s not a better place to watch than Las Vegas,” said Julian Dugas, director of sports marketing for the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority. “We’re basketball central.”
The four conference tournaments are expected to produce an economic impact of more than $25 million before gaming, according to the LVCVA. The city’s proven success as a tournament host begs an important question: When will the NCAA Tournament finally follow suit and come to Las Vegas?
The answer continues to stay maddeningly stagnant for locals and those who interested in following their team here. It’s not any time soon. Not as long as the NCAA keeps its policy not to hold any of its championship events in a state with legalized sports wagering.
“There’s a perception by the NCAA that the industry and their organization may be at odds,” said Judy Patterson, senior vice president and executive director of the American Gaming Association. “But it’s quite the contrary. They care very much about preventing scandals and the integrity of the game, and clearly, that’s first and foremost for the industry. If we don’t have integrity in the game we offer our customers, then we’re out of business.”
Several of the coaches and administrators who have been on hand for Las Vegas’ conference tournaments similarly distance themselves from the NCAA’s position.
Of all the issues that have come up through 10 years for the Mountain West, according to Associate Commissioner and Tournament Manager Dan Butterly, none involved sports betting. Butterly, who’s managed several NCAA Tournaments, including the women’s Final Four last year, called Las Vegas “ideal” as a host site.
He said, “barriers are coming down ever so slowly,” in regard to gaming keeping basketball out of Nevada.
“It shouldn’t be a concern,” Butterly said. “There are enough properties that are nongaming where you can put teams and they’d never step foot in a casino.”
The NCAA has given some indications that it’s progressed its stance on gaming but shown no changes in other ways.
The organization acted swiftly to ban tournaments from being held in New Jersey when the state signed into a law a bill allowing sports betting last year. The NCAA recently lifted the restriction when a federal judge threw out the law, but the damage was already done.
The Associated Press reported the temporary ban likely prevented the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., from hosting the East regional of the NCAA Tournament in 2015.
But the NCAA also eased restrictions seven years ago on where conferences can hold their own tournaments, allowing the Pac-12, WAC and WCC to come to Las Vegas in casino-attached arenas. Being able to use the Orleans Arena enabled the WAC and WCC to sell more tickets in a larger venue and appease coaches by playing at a neutral site.
Patterson added that the NCAA has been more open to receiving educational materials and hearing the perspective of the AGA in recent years. It’s a far cry from when the organization started in 1995 and had to fight off NCAA-backed efforts in Congress to prohibit betting on college sports in Nevada.
“There’s a lot of communication going back and forth,” Patterson said. “We’re now regularly participating in their conferences and trying to build a good working relationship. There’s obviously a ways to go, but that’s certainly our goal from an organizational perspective.”
Patterson wouldn’t make any predictions but expressed hope in seeing a day when the NCAA Tournament is held in the vicinity of the Strip. It might take someone other than the AGA fighting for it, though.
The city has remained respectful of the NCAA’s policy. The LVCVA has never attempted to defy the rule by putting in a bid to host the tournament.
“We understand their rationale, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it,” Dugas said.
“We will not be poking that bear.”
Dugas mentioned the LVCVA would prefer to have a new venue to offer an event as prominent as the NCAA Tournament, anyway.
The Thomas & Mack Center is already suitable to host the second and third rounds, as its capacity is larger than four of the eight sites that will do so this year.
“The great thing about the Thomas & Mack Center is the Cox Pavilion is attached to it,” Butterly said. “Between the two facilities, it provides everything the NCAA would want — a great gymnasium at Cox for a media center, practice gyms and a great arena for basketball.”
“Once the facilities are here and those changes come within the NCAA, there’s no question we would take a look at it,” Dugas said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. There are very few things in the sporting world that are more prestigious than to host the NCAA Tournament.”
But for now, the nation’s top conference tournament destination is stranded in the middle of the ocean of potential future NCAA sites.