March Madness will be a big step toward a renewal for Las Vegas, with an eye toward a more normal 2022

For Mo Franklin and many others, March Madness is a misnomer. Franklin isn't crazy about the NCAA tournament one month a year. He thinks about his annual March Madness trip to Las Vegas all year round.

About three weeks after he gets home from his Vegas March Madness trip, Franklin books the hotel for the following year. He'll compare rates at the hotel the rest of the year just in case they go down. By January, Franklin is working on his drink selections for the trip, picking between bottles of top-shelf liquor like it's a season of "The Bachelor" and posting his selections to Facebook. During the college basketball season, he's making notes on which teams he can't wait to bet for or against. A few weeks before March Madness, he'll place an online order for groceries to be delivered to the hotel for the group of family and friends, which is usually about eight people.

"So if you lose everything, at least you're going to eat," Franklin said with a laugh.

Here's the funny part: Franklin admits he's not even that big of a college basketball fan.

March Madness in Las Vegas centers around a basketball tournament, of course, but it's way more about bonding than basketball. Franklin can't quite remember when his annual trip started, but he thinks his crew of close family members and friends had gone 16 straight years before the tournament was canceled last year. The stories from those trips live on forever.

"It's five days of pure craziness," Franklin said. "You're cheering for teams you'd never heard of before. Who'd ever heard of the Shockers before a few years ago?

"I love the underdogs. I love the atmosphere. It became our men's trip, people in the family look forward to it every year."

Like so much else the past year and one week, COVID-19 has forced plans to change. Even though the NCAA tournament will be back this year and Las Vegas will host a lot of fans, Franklin and his group aren't going. Franklin said he'd been looking at the COVID numbers for months. Finally in late January he and his group decided it wasn't the right time to go and canceled it.

"It hurt," Franklin said. "It really, really hurt."

Many still will go, especially with Vegas opening up a bit more this month. March Madness is a huge event for Las Vegas, and this year it's a huge step toward renewal with an eye toward normalcy — whatever "normal" will look like — by March of 2022.

March Madness is back again in Las Vegas

On the March Madness in Las Vegas Facebook page, 15,000 members keep the discussion going year-round, discussing watch parties for the games, which sportsbooks give out drink tickets, which movies to watch on the flight to Vegas and inside jokes from years gone by. Sometimes, there are even basketball discussions.

In mid-February, group founder Barry Inciong posted a poll: Are you planning to go to Las Vegas for the first round? Of the 1,130 votes, only 512 said they were definitely going and 496 said there was no chance they'd go. It's not scientific, but also telling that almost 44 percent of the most zealous March Madness in Vegas fans were passing on the trip.

Inciong, who started the MMILV Facebook group as a Yahoo Group more than 10 years ago, started going to Vegas for March Madness in 2001 and made it an annual event. He won't be going this year. He'll celebrate his birthday this week by watching the games with some friends in California, where he lives.

"Very tough," Inciong said. "Major FOMO.

"At this point it would probably feel weird to be amongst a large group of people having fun like a concert or sporting event, and that's kinda what being at a watch party is like."

For those in Las Vegas though, this week is a new beginning. It has been a long year. Restrictions are easing up. Pools and beach clubs opened this month, albeit with capacity restrictions. Even if March Madness won't look quite the same or have as many people as usual, it's an enormous event and Vegas is planning on it being a big step.

"For us in the service industry, this is what we do, this is what we live for," said Sarah Moore, MGM's vice president of corporate marketing. "We want to give our guests this great experience for the big events. We're just thrilled to be heading in the right direction."

MGM lists special plans for March Madness games at 39 of its bars, clubs, sportsbooks and pools across its strip properties: Aria, Bellagio, Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, Mirage, Park MGM, and New York-New York. Moore said 55 new televisions were installed across the properties with the tournament games in mind.

After missing out last year, Vegas is ready to party for March Madness (yes, with health and safety protocols still in mind).

"You can feel it," Moore said. "Spring is in the air. People love their basketball. It's a totally renewed energy.

"People missed Vegas and they're definitely coming back."

Those who go will have fun. It's Vegas, after all. Underdogs will still win and watch parties will erupt at each bad beat. The trip regulars who don't go to Las Vegas can still watch the games on TV and many live in states where sports betting is legal.

It just won't be completely the same anywhere. That will come next year. Hopefully.

Fans watch the 2013 NCAA tournament at the Mirage in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Fans watch the 2013 NCAA tournament at the Mirage in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Hoping for a more normal 2022 March Madness

If you haven't been to the first four days of the NCAA tournament in Las Vegas, it's hard to describe the electricity.

It has grown tremendously in the past two decades. Over 2016 and 2017, two of the three biggest weekends in Las Vegas for hotel occupancy were during the first week of the NCAA tournament, according to the Las Vegas Sun. Both years, hotel occupancy in the city with the most hotel rooms in the world was at least 98.5 percent. In 2019, March was the busiest month in Las Vegas with nearly 3.7 million visitors. Fans will sit in sportsbook seats overnight to make sure they have a seat for tipoff of the first game at 9:15 a.m. Pacific time. Huge viewing parties have taken over the city, and many gladly pay the price to get in.

It's booze, basketball and bets for four straight days.

"If you've ever been in the Westgate theater when an upset occurs, the energy in the room is really close to what it's like being at the game live," Inciong said, "or maybe even a bit more so with alcohol flowing and money at risk."

There has been plenty lost due to COVID-19, things far more important than watching college basketball games in a Vegas sportsbook, bar or ballroom for four days. But those bonding trips were entirely lost last year, lost for some wary fans this year and that's not trivial to the thousands who make March Madness in Las Vegas a highlight of their year.

With vaccines rolling out and restrictions lifting, everyone is hopeful this year will be a one-off and 2022 will look like the March Madness party in Vegas everyone remembers.

"If restrictions are completely lifted a year from now, I can't see why it would be any less popular," Inciong said. "One could argue that expanded gambling legalization would allow more people to save their betting budgets and stay closer to home, but I think the Vegas experience is unique and after a full year of being restricted, everyone is antsy to get out of their house and town."

For the craziest ones who have March Madness in the back of their minds year round, the annual traditions will start again soon. Franklin will book his hotel suite. The MMILV Facebook group will start asking when watch parties will be announced. There will be many searches for flight prices. Las Vegas will plan to welcome everyone back.

"I'll be ready next year," Franklin said.

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