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Solomon: Las Vegas, NCAA Tournament and a changing sports landscape

Houston Chronicle 3/25/2023 Jerome Solomon, Staff writer

LAS VEGAS — The American Gaming Association says 68 million Americans will place bets on this year’s men’s NCAA Tournament, putting $15.5 billion on the table, virtual tables for app users.

With so much action on the games, one would think Las Vegas would be at the center of it.

But that hasn’t been the case until this weekend. The NCAA West Regional, featuring UCLA, Gonzaga, UConn and Arkansas, marks the first time Las Vegas was a host city for the NCAA’s signature event.

The NCAA used to have a policy against holding championship events in states with legal sports betting.

The fear was that seedy characters with bags of cash would entice athletes into fixing games.

That was back when gambling was bad.

Twenty years ago, the NCAA lobbied vigorously to get congress to pass a law banning betting on college sports.

When the Nevada Gaming Commission overturned a half-century long rule forbidding betting on Nevada sports teams, the NCAA was upset.

"They've expanded college sports wagering," Bill Saum, director of the NCAA's agent and gambling activities office, said at the time. "They actually went the opposite direction we were hoping for."

Well, now the NCAA is headed in the opposite direction, too.

Like professional sports teams, college athletics departments are forming lucrative partnerships with gambling entities.

BetMGM is the official sports betting partner of the Astros, with signage throughout Minute Maid Park, despite the fact that sports betting is illegal in Texas.

Where once this was a UNLV-only town when it came to sports, there are now NFL, NHL, WNBA franchises based here. Las Vegas has had minor league baseball since 1983.

Point-shaving was, and still is, a serious issue, but there is too much money involved in legal gambling to ban Las Vegas from the sports world.

Not too long ago, Las Vegas hosting an NCAA championship was not a possibility.

After the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which in effect limited sports gambling to a couple states, the most prominent one being Nevada, the NCAA immediately removed its ban on playing championships in states that allow gambling.

Five years later, 36 states have legalized sports betting in some form, and Las Vegas is going NCAA host crazy.

The NIT semifinals will take place here on Tuesday, the NCAA hockey championship, the Frozen Four, is slated for 2026, and the Final Four will be here in 2028. NCAA soccer, golf and bowling championships are scheduled to be here soon.

Five conferences – the Big West, Mountain West, Pac-12, West Coast and Western Athletic – hold their annual postseason basketball tournaments in Las Vegas, creating a week of events that is bigger in scale than the Final Four.

For what it’s worth, the NCAA still draws a hard line on sports betting.

“Sports wagering has the potential to undermine the integrity of sports contests and jeopardizes the well-being of student-athletes and the intercollegiate athletics community. It also demeans the competition and competitors alike by spreading a message that is contrary to the purpose and meaning of ‘sport.’ Sports competition should be appreciated for the inherent benefits related to participation of student-athletes, coaches and institutions in fair contests, not the amount of money wagered on the outcome of the competition.”

Now, let’s see how much money these casinos will pony up to put on our championships.

OK, the NCAA didn’t say that last part, but it is clearly pleased that Las Vegas can now bid for its showcases.

The NCAA realizes that gambling is here to stay. Despite it being against the rules, a quarter of NCAA male athletes admitted to placing a wager in the previous year, and more than half (54 percent) say sports gambling is a “harmless pastime.”

Virginia Tech football player Alan Tisdale self-reported his use of a wagering app to bet on the NBA Finals. He said he misunderstood the rules, which ban all sports gambling, not just NCAA games.

Despite the honest mistake, the NCAA suspended Tisdale for nine games (later reduced to six by an appeal).

There will be a gambling scandal involving NCAA athletes. Soon.

That isn’t a doomsday prediction, just a matter of following history.

And it has nothing to do with Las Vegas.

Despite concerted efforts by professional leagues and the NCAA to keep them apart, sports, money and gambling have always been an inextricably linked trio.

The more prevalent gambling is, the more college athletes will become involved. There will be a problem. It’s inevitable.

When teams used to come to Las Vegas, they stayed at hotels that didn’t have sportsbooks, and went out of their way to enter hotels through side entrances so players could avoid walking through a casino.

Teams played games at high school gyms during holiday tournaments because they didn’t know what the NCAA would say if they played in a casino arena.

Kansas and Florida broke that unwritten rule with a game at the Orleans Arena in 2006. That opened the door for conference tournaments in Las Vegas.

Now that the NCAA is here with championships, Las Vegas will become a popular landing spot.

Houston has proved to be an excellent host for major events, and thus has worked its way into the Final Four rotation, with the event being held at NRG Stadium in 2011, 2016 and again this year. A regional will be at Toyota Center in 2026.

But as the NCAA has found out in recent years, there is no city like Las Vegas.

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