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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The NCAA once eschewed Las Vegas. Times, and prospects, have changed.

By Alex Traub

There was a time when the NCAA would have played men’s basketball tournament games on the moon before placing its marquee event in Las Vegas.

Those were the days when point-shaving scandals at Arizona State, Tulane and Boston College were not ancient history and when casinos were so jittery about perceived ties to organized crime that they declined to set betting lines involving any teams from Nevada.

It probably did not help that the NCAA had a long, litigious feud with Jerry Tarkanian, the UNLV coach — or that several of Tarkanian’s players once turned up in a front-page newspaper photo drinking beer in a hot tub with a twice-convicted sports fixer.

So, even though the country’s gambling mecca is no longer a pro sports pariah — hockey’s Golden Knights and football’s Raiders are anchored in the city, baseball’s Oakland Athletics have long flirted with a move, and the Super Bowl will be arriving next February — it is noteworthy that the NCAA has planted a flag in Las Vegas, too.

Las Vegas will host a NCAA basketball regional for the first time this week. The West regional semifinals, which begin Thursday with UCLA-Gonzaga and Arkansas-Connecticut, will also serve as a dry run for the 2028 men’s Final Four, which was awarded to Las Vegas last fall.

That these three games are being played in the copper-skinned T-Mobile Arena in the heart of the Strip signals the depth of the détente.

“It was unimaginable at one time,” said Michael Green, a son of a casino dealer who graduated from UNLV and is now a history professor at the school. “Even as things changed, a lot of people figured the NCAA was never coming near us. For people who have been here for a long time and had skin in the game, going back to the ’70s or at least the ’80s, this is vindication.”

If Las Vegas is a different place now, with an ever-expanding Strip and marketing pitches that tilt as much to family fun as gambling junkets, the NCAA’s arrival is not so much about how the city has changed as it is about a shift in attitudes — and the law — about sports gambling.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver signaled that turn in 2014 when he became the first leader of a major American sports league to call for changes to the federal law that effectively banned sports gambling in most states. Later that year, the NHL announced it would put an expansion franchise in Las Vegas.

When the Supreme Court struck down a federal law in 2018, leaving sports gambling in the hands of states, the gold rush was on in an exploding market.

Soon, major leagues (and their teams) cut deals with sportsbooks, tapping into a new revenue source. They also believed that gambling would help fan engagement and television ratings, which had been flagging. Some universities, like Colorado and Michigan State, struck agreements with casinos, which paid millions for the ability to market sports betting to their fans and students.

No sports organizations had been more leery of Las Vegas than the NFL and the NCAA.

But the NFL, which had once refused to sell Super Bowl ad time to Las Vegas tourism efforts, was now capable of reaping more than $500 million annually, according to a Nielsen study commissioned by the American Gaming Association shortly after the Supreme Court decision. By 2020, the Raiders arrived, followed by the NFL draft in 2022 and, next year, the Super Bowl.

The NCAA’s embrace of Las Vegas, if not as lucrative — there is little beyond the rights fees included in the bid — is just as fulsome as the NFL’s.

It has moved this year’s National Invitation Tournament semifinals and finals from Madison Square Garden to Las Vegas, and awarded the 2026 men’s hockey championship to the city. Las Vegas will also host Division II and Division III golf championships and Division III soccer championships in the coming years, as well as the Division I bowling championship in April.

“There’s no question that the landscape changed significantly with the Supreme Court decision,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball, noting that 33 states and the District of Columbia now offer sports betting. “It’s remarkable how quickly it has all unfolded once that domino fell.”

In 2020, the NCAA’s board of governors lifted a ban on holding championship events in Las Vegas. That year, the tournament committee awarded a 2023 men’s regional to Las Vegas, a decision Gavitt said was based in part on the experiences of five conferences that hold their postseason tournaments in Las Vegas and its suburbs: the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast, Western Athletic and Big West.

When the Pac-12 moved its tournament to Las Vegas in 2013, as a way to boost sagging attendance, it carefully mapped out a route, through a side door, down a service elevator, through the kitchen and onto a bus, so teams could go from their hotel rooms at the massive MGM Grand to its Grand Garden Arena without having to pass through the casino floor.

The NCAA found in a 2016 survey, before the spread of sports betting nationwide, that 24% of men’s athletes and 5% of women’s athletes had bet on sports, “violating N.C.A.A. bylaws,” the study said. There can be severe consequences for violating the NCAA’s ban on sports betting. Last year, the NCAA suspended Virginia Tech linebacker Alan Tisdale for six games after he legally bet $400 on NBA games, which he told his coach about following a presentation on NCAA rules.

This week, all four teams are staying at MGM properties that have casinos, according to a tournament official.

The softening of the NCAA began about 15 years ago, when a team of Las Vegas business leaders traveled to Indianapolis to meet with NCAA officials. Corporate casinos wanted to be taken seriously on Wall Street — and sports was viewed as a way to win over skeptics, who might have been uneasy that the mayor at the time was Oscar Goodman, who made his name as a mob lawyer and had represented Richie Perry, the gambler nicknamed the Fixer who had been in the hot tub with the UNLV players.

The group’s message to NCAA officials: We’re on the same side.

By then, basketball and Las Vegas were deeply intertwined, beginning with the grassroots basketball world, whose capital might as well have been Las Vegas.

Beginning in the early 1990s, around the time Tarkanian was forced out of UNLV after the publication of the photo of his players with Perry, Adidas began hosting the Big Time tournament. The event drew hundreds of teams and many of the best high school players around the country to Las Vegas for a week during July. College coaches flocked from everywhere to evaluate them.

The tournament was the brainchild of Sonny Vaccaro, who worked for Nike when he made Tarkanian the first coach to have an endorsement contract with the shoe company. Vaccaro said the NCAA told him high school players would jeopardize their college eligibility if they stayed in casinos.

“The first year, they made us go to a Motel 6 off the Strip,” said Vaccaro, who later urged former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon to sue the NCAA in what became a landmark victory in the fight to allow college athletes to profit from endorsements. “The NCAA picked on Jerry Tarkanian vicariously through Sonny Vaccaro and anything connected with us over the years.”

It’s not as if nothing bad ever happened in Las Vegas. The FBI staged a sting operation in 2017 by placing a hidden camera in an executive suite at the Cosmopolitan, one of the more posh hotels on the Strip, to record college basketball coaches discussing or accepting bribes.

Though the case ended up doing little to clean up the sport, the NCAA reacted with several measures to restrict the influence of shoe companies like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, which invest heavily in their grassroots basketball operations.

The NCAA tightened the recruiting calendar, allowing for more events with high school teams to be held when coaches can evaluate them in person. It also started its own summer evaluation camps, which began in 2020 and will resume this summer for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic started. The effect: There are fewer recruiting showcases in Las Vegas.

Gavitt said there was no concerted effort to direct recruiting showcases away from Las Vegas, noting that USA Basketball and independent operators hold NCAA-certified camps or tournaments in the city. But one of those operators, Dinos Trigonis, whose Pangos Top 100 Camp is popular with NBA scouts, said there are fewer events in the city “because they thought Vegas was inherently corrupt or poisonous, on and off the court.”

As Las Vegas began to be viewed differently, the city’s emergence as a professional sports town came at a propitious moment. When the Seattle Kingdome was demolished in 2000, there were no domed football stadiums big enough to host a Final Four west of San Antonio until State Farm Stadium, the home of the Arizona Cardinals, opened in 2006. It hosted a Final Four in 2017 and will again next year.

There is only one other fully indoor stadium in a western U.S. state suitable for a Final Four: the home of the Las Vegas Raiders. (SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, has a roof but is not closed to the elements, which led some fans to get rained on during the college football championship earlier this year.)

“We want the games to be national and have West Coast representation,” said Peter Roby, a former athletic director at Northeastern and former basketball coach at Harvard, who served on the men’s basketball tournament committee from 2011-17. “You can also do more in a warm weather environment, whether it’s sponsors, fans or teams.”

Roby, who played for Dartmouth against the Boston College players involved in a point-shaving scheme in the late 1970s, said that during his time on the committee, there were discussions from NCAA governing boards about what would happen if the federal law restricting sports gambling was overturned and more states made it legal.

For example, if Pennsylvania made sports gambling legal — which it did, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing state operations — would the NCAA pull tournament games from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which have been regular stops?

Ultimately, if the NCAA hadn’t lifted its ban on holding championship events in states where gambling is legal, it would not have been able to award a regional site to New York or Las Vegas this year, and would have had to find four new sites for first-round games that were played in states with legal sports betting.

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