Dan Quinn watched closely as the bracket for the NCAA tournament was unveiled on Selection Sunday. Like a lot of folks in Las Vegas, he had something on the line, but this year the stakes were higher.
March Madness has always been a big event in Las Vegas. It conveniently coincides with college spring break and St. Patrick's Day. The city fills up with 20-somethings ready to party and bet on basketball, creating an atmosphere around town that's fueled by testosterone and tequila. And this year, for the first time, the games are being played right on the Strip.
Quinn oversees MGM Resorts' Las Vegas venues, including T-Mobile Arena, site of this week's West Regional of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. On Selection Sunday, he was pulling for some blue bloods to land in the West and hopefully make their way to the regional in Las Vegas. He thought UCLA and Gonzaga could make for big crowds but coveted Kansas and the Jayhawks' rabid fan base most of all. He got all three as the top seeds in the West Region.
"That was big," Quinn, MGM Resorts vice president of entertainment operations, said at the time. "[Kansas'] fan base in Las Vegas ... It's going to be a home run."
The Jayhawks won't be making it to T-Mobile Arena this week, though, after being ousted by Arkansas in the second round. But with Gonzaga, UCLA and UConn coming to town, expectations, excitement and ticket prices remain sky high for an event that just five years ago would've been off limits to Las Vegas.
For decades, the NCAA maintained a policy prohibiting championship events in states with legal sports betting markets. It had concerns about putting student-athletes in the epicenter of American sports betting. But while the NCAA was keeping its distance from Las Vegas, major conference basketball tournaments kept coming to town, and professional sports weren't far behind. In 2019, with legal sports betting markets beginning to launch around the nation, the NCAA rescinded its policy, and Las Vegas was awarded its first men's basketball tournament.
The Super Bowl will be played in Las Vegas in 2024; the Frozen Four, the NCAA men's hockey championship, in 2026, and the Final Four of the men's basketball tournament in 2028. The NFL, NHL and WNBA have franchises in Las Vegas, and Major League Baseball and the NBA have their eyes on the city as well. In less than a decade, Las Vegas has transformed itself from a city deemed too risky for major sports to one of the premier big-game destinations in the nation.
"Vegas had proven that college basketball works here," Quinn said, "and I think we'd gotten over a lot of the stereotypes or stigmas of having student-athletes in Vegas for those events. It's been a long time in the making."
Las Vegas took many steps along its evolution from sports taboo to tradition.
The NBA debuted its summer league in 2004 at UNLV, and an increasing number of college conferences began holding their basketball tournaments in town. In 2015, the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics announced that it would hold its annual conference in Las Vegas in the coming years. But, at that point, two major obstacles remained before Las Vegas could land an NCAA tournament: the city lacked a modern venue equipped to host a championship event, and the NCAA's prohibition against states with legal betting.
Rick Arpin had a major role in addressing the first obstacle. During his time as an executive with MGM Resorts, he led the development and opening of T-Mobile Arena.
"We always sort of had this chicken-and-egg worry in our town," Arpin, now a managing partner for the Las Vegas office of consulting firm KPMG, said. "If you build a venue, what if nothing comes?"
That question proved to be a no-brainer. On April 6, 2016, T-Mobile Arena opened near the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. Two months later, the NHL became the first major professional sports league to put a franchise in Las Vegas. Major college basketball teams quickly scheduled showcases at T-Mobile Arena, too, but without a change to NCAA policy, Las Vegas couldn't even bid to host an NCAA tournament. That would change in the coming years.
On May 14, 2018, just after 7 a.m. PT, Las Vegas' chances of hosting an NCAA tournament went from improbable to inevitable, thanks to a game-changing ruling three time zones away by the United States Supreme Court.
The landmark ruling invalidated the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, a federal statute that for 26 years had restricted regulated sports betting to primarily Nevada. Three days after the ruling, the NCAA suspended its policy prohibiting championship events from being held in states with legal sports betting and rescinded the policy in May of 2019. Las Vegas was in the game.
"The Supreme Court changing the law kicked the door down and really opened it for us," Quinn said.
Quinn and the team at MGM Resorts acted quickly when the NCAA changed its policy and by that summer had submitted multiple bids to host NCAA championship events, highlighting the city's affordability, easy airport access and abundance of hotel rooms located close to the venue. On Oct. 14, 2020, 30 months to the day of the Supreme Court decision, the NCAA awarded Las Vegas a regional site to this year's basketball tournament, the Frozen Four in 2026 and the Final Four in 2028.
"I think it was a pretty easy sell to the NCAA," Quinn said.
An easy sell that took more than 20 years to complete due to fears about Las Vegas that now seem archaic.
The crux of the NCAA's past reluctance to Las Vegas was centered on integrity concerns. It thought there was an increased risk of corruption if games were played in the American epicenter of sports betting.
"I don't think anyone believed that you'd be having athletes walking down the street in Las Vegas and someone comes up to them and slips them an envelope of cash and says, 'miss that free throw,'" Arpin said. "I just don't think that was on people's minds 10 years ago, when this really started picking up momentum."
No major point-shaving or gambling scandal in collegiate sports has been revealed in the five years since sports betting began expanding in the U.S. Arpin says that while the abundance of types of wagers available may increase the likelihood of an incident occurring, he believes it's better to have more visibility of the betting that takes place. The NCAA, on the other hand, says federal regulations are needed to best monitor sports betting.
"While the NCAA seeks federal legislation to better regulate sports wagering, particularly to safeguard college sports competitions, we are excited to bring our national championships to Las Vegas," Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president of basketball, said in 2020. "The city has hosted numerous championships sponsored by our member conferences, and the experience of the teams and fans has been overwhelmingly positive. We anticipate that being the case for our championships as well."
Nevada gaming officials aren't making significant changes to regulatory protocols while the NCAA tournament is in town. The enforcement division of the Nevada Gaming Control Board declined comment on any potential changes to protocols, and Quinn said T-Mobile was not asked to make any specific adjustments regarding sports betting at the arena. There are no betting kiosks in the arena, but Nevada sportsbooks offer mobile betting options that can be accessed on phones inside the venue, as it can in most of the U.S., including in New York, site of this week's East Regional.
It's impossible for the NCAA to escape sports betting these days, but it remains concerned.
On its website, the NCAA states that sports betting "has the potential to undermine the integrity of sports contests and jeopardizes the well-being of student-athletes." It maintains those views but also acknowledges the reality of the changed landscape.
Legal bookmakers are now operating in more than 30 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Online sportsbooks such as DraftKings, FanDuel and BetMGM saw spikes in web traffic last week, as the tournament tipped off, according to market research site SimilarWeb.com. Similarweb Gaming research firm Eilers & Krejcik estimates that $2.59 billion will bet on the NCAA tournament with regulated sportsbooks in the U.S., two and half times more than they projected would bet on the Super Bowl -- and that doesn't include your standard office pools.
But even with sportsbooks opening at stadiums, racetracks and casinos around the nation, Las Vegas remains the preferred March Madness destination for many. In the past, patrons would gather in lines as early as 4 a.m. local time to try to get a coveted unreserved seat for the Thursday and Friday rounds at sportsbooks like The Mirage and Caesars Palace. Now, though, most sportsbooks require reservations and open ballrooms to accommodate overflow crowds. Caesars Palace puts in bleachers to for the tournament crowd and reported being "packed and high energy" for Thursday and Friday.
David Grolman, senior vice president of operations for Caesars Entertainment, oversees retail sportsbooks around the country. He's seen what March Madness is like at the company's sportsbooks in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, but acknowledges that it's hard to match the atmosphere -- and weather -- in Las Vegas.
"It's guys who have been friends for 20 and 30 years, and March Madness in Vegas is the one time when they all get together," Grolman said. "It's hard to beat."
And now the games will be taking place right down the street.
"Who would've ever thought that the Sweet 16 would be here in Las Vegas? It's so great for the city and it's going to be good for the sport," Grolman said. "The place will absolutely be packed."
For Quinn, the MGM executive in charge of T-Mobile Arena, the past few years since being awarded an NCAA tournament regional have been a whirlwind. He has witnessed Las Vegas transform from a city long shunned by sports to one of the premier sporting destinations in the nation. And he loves it.
"We like to say we're the capital of the sports world, but maybe that's a little egotistical," Quinn said. "But we definitely feel like we've got our place in the universe."