An unlikely alliance

Oct 23, 2020 5:00 AM

Pat Christenson was someone in need of some good news.

The president of Las Vegas Events has had a rocky year. Haven’t we all? But he lost several major events that brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to town and generate millions of dollars for the city. No NBA Summer League. No PBR World Finals. No National Finals Rodeo.

So when word came that the NCAA, of all organizations, was going to do something nice for Las Vegas, Christenson probably fell out of his chair. Actually, he may have fallen down from jumping for joy after it was announced the 2023 men’s basketball tournament regional would be played at T-Mobile Arena and the 2026 men’s Frozen Four ice hockey championship was also coming to what Golden Knights fans adoringly call “The Fortress.”

In all, 11 NCAA championships will be contested in Southern Nevada between 2023-26 including golf, soccer and bowling at all three Divisions. It’s a huge get for a city that has been shunned by college sports’ governing body for decades.

The NCAA still isn’t totally comfortable doing business in a locale where you can bet on its events. But with sports betting growing all over the country, what was it going to do? Set up shop in Utah?

For years, Christenson and the folks at LVE have been pushing hard for the NCAA to at least listen to the idea of putting one of its championships in Las Vegas. Same for Jim Livengood, the former athletic director at UNLV who had been chairman of the men’s basketball committee and understood what went into the bid process. Together, they formulated a proposal, kept knocking on the door like a persistent salesperson until the NCAA finally let them in.

Once in, they had a lot of things going for them to sell. The fact four D-1 conferences (Pac-12, Mountain West, WCC and WAC) all hold their postseason tournaments in Las Vegas was a big chip to be played. Also, the city’s growth and less of a dependency on gambling added to the attractiveness. NCAA President Mark Emmert has visited the town several times the past few years and he has seen that first-hand.

“People who don’t visit Las Vegas don’t realize there’s so much more to do here than just gamble,” Livengood said in a radio interview last week.

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The other big chip that was played was NACDA, the National Association of College Directors of Athletics. That organization has held its annual meeting in Las Vegas and the AD’s, who drive policy in college athletics, have come away with a much different opinion of the town from back in the old days.

They see the diversity of the city. They can’t help but notice the facilities, including T-Mobile Arena, and now, Allegiant Stadium. They see the hotel space, the upscale dining options, the entertainment, shopping and the beauty of the outdoors in the area, including Lake Mead, Red Rock and Mount Charleston.

Most of all, they see dollar signs. And the NCAA now sees them too.

The dollars have been missing from here since the middle of March. They’re slowly trickling back in. We can only hope Las Vegas is back to being itself come 2023 when the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 are contested here. It would be a tremendous shot in the arm for this community which has suffered as much as any in America during the coronavirus pandemic.

For Christenson, Livengood and those who worked on the NCAA bids that were ultimately successful, great job. But upon hearing the news, I couldn’t help but think about a certain basketball coach who once worked here.

Somewhere in hoops heaven, Jerry Tarkanian is smiling that wry smile he would always display when he won a game. But this? This news likely called for Tark to light up a victory cigar, Red Auerbach-style. Hey, it’s not often Vegas gets to do business with the NCAA without Vegas getting the short end of the stick.

Incidentally, how are those nice folks from the NCAA’s Committe on Infractions doing these days? I kinda miss them in a somewhat morbid way.