With men's Sweet 16 in Las Vegas, NCAA finally embraces Sin City as a destination

LAS VEGAS — Jim Livengood had a big idea.

The longtime athletics director at Washington State, Arizona and UNLV, Livengood had been living in Las Vegas since his retirement in 2013. Over time, he began to see that the NCAA was making a mistake by eschewing Sin City as a place to plant its flag with championship-level events.

“There were so many people (in college sports) who hadn’t been to Vegas in 25 years,” Livengood said. “They had no idea.”

In his view, Vegas had everything you’d want for a Final Four or college football national championship game: Lots of flights in and out, plentiful hotel space and endless options for food and entertainment. And with the NHL and NFL moving into town, sports venues were on the way that could compete with any in the country.

But the NCAA, as usual, was behind the times. A rule prohibiting NCAA championships being played in states where sports gambling was legal meant that there was no conceivable way for Vegas to host an NCAA basketball tournament.

UConn coach Dan Hurley watches the Huskies practice at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
UConn coach Dan Hurley watches the Huskies practice at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

The NCAA was so committed to the bit that former NCAA president Mark Emmert was among several sports executives deposed in a 2012 federal lawsuit challenging the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a law that made sports gambling illegal everywhere except Nevada.

“This is clearly a threat to the integrity of intercollegiate athletics,” Emmert said.

Those days, of course, are over. PASPA was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2018, and sports gambling is now legal either online or in a physical sports book in 33 states plus the District of Columbia.

In the wake of that decision, Livengood began to pitch an idea that he thought might help break the ice among some of his former colleagues in NCAA world: Bring the entire women’s Sweet 16 to Las Vegas as a trial run.

“That was part and parcel of just trying to get some traction on the idea that Vegas could deliver all the things that were needed,” he said.

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Though it never came to fruition, the wheels started turning. NACDA, the professional association for athletics directors that Livengood had formerly been president of, moved its annual convention here. Then in 2018, he helped facilitate the NCAA men’s basketball committee summer meeting in Las Vegas, where members toured a still-under-construction Allegiant Stadium, where the Raiders have been playing since 2020.

“That opened a lot of windows,” Livengood said.

Becoming a hub for college sports

Fast-forward to 2023, and Las Vegas is now poised to be a hub for college sports with several NCAA events scheduled over the next several years, beginning with Thursday’s West Regional at T-Mobile Arena. From golf to bowling to hockey — the 2026 Frozen Four will also be held here — the NCAA logo will soon be as ubiquitous on the Las Vegas Strip as ads for celebrity chef restaurants and Cirque du Soleil shows.

It will all lead up to 2028, when the NCAA brings its crown jewel event, the men’s Final Four, here for the first (and probably not last) time.

“It was just getting over the stigma that it was Las Vegas,” Livengood said.

People can debate whether the spread of sports gambling has had a positive or negative effect on college sports, but realistically it never made a lot of sense for the NCAA to avoid one of America’s most travel-friendly cities for events that rely on tens of thousands of people flying in for a weekend.

The days of UNLV basketball players being photographed in a hot tub with the infamous Richard “The Fixer” Perry, who had been implicated in multiple point-shaving scandals, were long in the past.

If anything, that ugly incident — which helped lead to coach Jerry Tarkanian's resignation in 1992 — helped the industry modernize and become more vigilant about potential problems. While at UNLV, Livengood said he learned that there was a much closer eye on their athletes in the community than anything he had experienced in his previous stops.

And pragmatically, for all those years the NCAA was keeping Vegas at arm’s length, the wider basketball world was ingratiating itself more and more here through USA Basketball training camps, the NBA summer league, the Pac-12 moving more of its biggest events here and several youth travel tournaments coming every summer where college coaches evaluate prospects.

Arkansas freshman Jordan Walsh said he had played in Las Vegas “four or five times” in high school before returning with the Razorbacks for the Sweet 16.

"It's a nice place,” he said. “Not somewhere I’d want to live.”

For two of the teams here this weekend, this is nothing new. Both UCLA and Gonzaga play their conference tournaments here annually. They even played each other here, on this same floor, on Nov. 23, 2021.

"The atmosphere was crazy,” said Gonzaga junior Julian Strawther, who grew up here. “Vegas showed up and showed out. It was one of the biggest and most fun games I’ve ever been a part of. I feel like slowly over the last five years, everything is kind of rolling through town and we’re getting a lot of big events.”

For most of the players, it doesn’t particularly matter where these tournaments are held. Once they arrive, it’s all business leading up to tip-off.

But it's a big deal for the fans to have a true destination that they can get to easily from every corner of the country, which is why it always made sense to have Vegas as a regular stop in the rotation. That’s likely going to be true in the expanded College Football Playoff as well. Though no CFP championship game has been awarded here yet due to scheduling conflicts with the Consumer Electronics Show at that time of year, Vegas is expected to be heavily involved once the next round of bidding begins.

But for people like Livengood, who were advocating for the NCAA to embrace Las Vegas before it was popular, this weekend is an exciting time. College sports have been a big deal here for decades, and treating it as a taboo has long been an outdated and flawed notion.

“More than anything else, it was making people aware that Vegas wasn’t just this place where it was sports books and gambling, but understanding from a transportation, food and lodging, ease of getting around, all the facilities being built that you could do anything you wanted and get there easily,” he said. “It's going to be a fan favorite.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sweet 16 in Las Vegas: NCAA finally embraces Sin City