Start Of March Madness Is Already ‘The Best Weekend’ In Las Vegas, But It Could Get Bigger

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March Madness Vegas

The Super Bowl of weekends in Las Vegas does not involve the NFL.

The opening four days of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament rule the calendar now, at least according to Derek Stevens, owner of the D Las Vegas.

“March Madness is the best weekend of the year in Las Vegas,” Stevens said. “It used to be the Super Bowl, but clearly now it’s March Madness.”

Even smaller hotel/casinos like the one Stevens owns enjoy the fruits of the tournament. Situated in the older downtown area of Las Vegas, the hotel’s 12th-floor ballroom transforms into a March Madness party for thousands of fans over the long weekend. Some line up as early as 6 a.m. to claim a spot, and Stevens erects a temporary casino just outside the room to handle the crush of additional bettors.

Just one example of the March Madness effect on Las Vegas

Increased action at the D represents just a small piece of what happens in Las Vegas during the tournament. What’s obvious is the enormous handle: roughly $300 million will be wagered at Nevada sportsbooks throughout March Madness, according to the American Gaming Association. Last March, Nevada sports betting generated nearly half a billion in handle across all sports.

Less apparent are the fancy meals at celebrity-chef restaurants and spendy cocktails at nightclubs that boost basketball visitor outlay. In fact, the first weekend of the tournament was the busiest of the year for Las Vegas hotel occupancy in 2016 with nearly 99 percent of rooms taken. It ranked second in 2017, with the weekend of the Sweet 16 placing third.

As tax refunds start arriving in the mail, Stevens said, people come to Vegas ready to spend.

“Everyone’s walking around a little more flush,” Stevens said.

The March money starts flowing in earnest the week prior to the madness. That’s when Las Vegas hosts the tournaments for the Pac-12, West Coast, Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences at T-Mobile Arena, Orleans Arena and Thomas & Mack Center.

That week alone generates an estimated economic impact of more than $40 million for Las Vegas. The events attract close to 200,000 people, according to information from spokeswoman Amanda Arentsen of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Numbers for the men’s conference basketball tourneys

Pac-12 Conference 
Total Event Attendees: 88,400
Total Economic Impact: $23.5 million

Mountain West Conference
Total Event Attendees: 39,700
Total Economic Impact: $7.9 million

West Coast Conference
Total Event Attendees: 38,400
Total Economic Impact: $7.8 million

Las Vegas wants to go even bigger in a few years

The crown jewel of Las Vegas stadiums is under construction just west of Mandalay Bay. When finished in 2020, the 65,000-seat domed stadium will be the new home of the Raiders. The state of Nevada will kick in $750 million in new room-tax money toward the $1.9 billion project.

Lawmakers approved that funding with the understanding that stadium would host at least 30 events per year to generate sufficient return on their investment. Among their hopes is that March Madness goes from distant viewing to up-close entertainment in the form of the Final Four.

That cannot happen right now because of long-standing NCAA policy.

“Generally speaking, the NCAA championship sports wagering policy prohibits the conducting of any championship session in a state with legal wagering that is based on single-game betting,” NCAA spokesperson Meghan Durham told the Las Vegas Sun last year.

A change could be huge for Las Vegas. Organizers of last year’s Final Four in Glendale, Ariz., estimated a $274 million economic impact from the event. That’s roughly equal to what the national championship game between Clemson and Alabama generated for the area.

Quietly, those involved in stadium development hope for a potential shift in that policy depending on the outcome of the New Jersey sports betting in the US Supreme Court. The NCAA last year softened to allow entities in the state to bid on championships for the first time. But the NCAA then said it would not consider Nevada proposals for the time being.

But if New Jersey wins its case, a variety of states are going to have legal sports wagering. And that could mean Nevada is no longer shut out from hosting events like the NCAA tournament.