Las Vegas has become a hub for many sports in the past few years as the WNBA, NHL and NFL have moved in, with the NBA and MLB reportedly not far off on the horizon.
But one sport has been a consistent presence in the desert for many years: College basketball, which takes over Las Vegas during the first two weeks of March.
“If you’re in the West, Las Vegas is where March Madness starts,” said Big West Conference Commissioner Dan Butterly.
Five Division I conferences currently call the Las Vegas Valley home when deciding who will be dancing into the NCAA Tournament for men and women. It started with the Big West with a two-year stint from 1994–1995 at the Thomas and Mack Center.
“March Madness really does start in Las Vegas and it’s important for the Big West to be out here with the other tournaments,” Butterly said. “There are so many benefits, including the exposure the conference gets, all the media here and the large pool of officials that we can use.”
The Western Athletic Conference followed when it used the Thomas and Mack Center from 1997–1999. The Mountain West Conference then moved in when it began hosting its event in Vegas in 2000. Of the last 23 MWC Tournaments, 20 have taken place at the Thomas and Mack Center.
From there, the West Coast Conference, anchored by Gonzaga, was the next to bring its show to Vegas. The WCC has been at the Orleans Arena since 2009.
“We’ve helped expose Las Vegas as a tremendous place for college sports, and more in particular for us, college basketball,” said WCC Interim Commissioner Connie Hulburt. “You can see that now as Vegas is getting a Regional Final this year and then a Final Four on the docket in 2028.”
The Big West and WAC walked so that five conferences could now run, dribble and shoot under the bright lights. The last, and biggest, fish to enter the Vegas pond was the Pac-12, which used the MGM Grand Garden Arena from 2013–2016 before moving to T-Mobile Arena when it opened in 2017.
A Week of Trophies
The WCC traditionally hosts its men’s tournament final on the first Tuesday of March, several days before the other four conferences. For the sixth time in the past eight years, the title game was between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in front of a near-sellout crowd of largely Gonzaga fans, who have made themselves at home in Las Vegas over the last decade and a half.
“Coming to Las Vegas every year is a great time for our fans — I hear about that every year,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said with a chuckle. “I think the best memories I have from coming down here is the support we get every year from our fans. It’s incredible every time you walk out there and the place is filled with Gonzaga fans. And it’s carried over to last year when we played UCLA here at T-Mobile and the year before we played Duke there. It’s a great environment in Las Vegas and that’s created by our fans traveling down.”
The Zags have won 12 of the 15 WCC Tournaments since the conference moved to Las Vegas. The 2023 edition was no different, as the Bulldogs dominated Saint Mary’s 77–51 to secure the No. 3 seed in the West Region — and potentially a return trip to Las Vegas for the Sweet Sixteen when T-Mobile Arena hosts the first NCAA Tournament action in the city’s history.
“Las Vegas has been a home away from home for our conference,” Hulburt said. “When you come to an event as important as a conference tournament, you want people to know what to expect. They have their routines down and know which properties and restaurants their teams prefer. It’s a comforting feeling.”
So comforting, the WCC is bringing its baseball tournament to Las Vegas Ballpark over Memorial Day Weekend this year.
“We have a deal there through 2026,” Hulburt said. “If our institutions hadn’t experienced such positive feedback from the people supporting college athletics in Las Vegas, we wouldn’t have done that. We’re grateful to our wonderful partners at Las Vegas Events and the other people in town who have allowed us to explore those options.”
While the WCC tournament was first up, the other four conferences crowned women’s championships at various points throughout the first two weeks of March, while the men’s tournaments all ended on March 11.
Grand Canyon defeated Southern Utah in the WAC final at the Orleans Arena. San Diego State topped Utah State for the Mountain West crown, while Arizona won a thriller against UCLA in a matchup of top-10 teams.
Happy in Henderson
While all those events happened in the Las Vegas city limits, the Big West was having its final at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, about 15 minutes southeast of the Strip.
“You see the players’ eyes light up when they walk from the locker room out into the arena and it looks like an NCAA Tournament site,” Butterly said. “It has 6,000 seats, but it sure feels a lot bigger than that when you’re on the floor.”
How the Big West ended up in Las Vegas after more than two decades in Southern California was circumstance. After the 2020 tournament in Anaheim was cancelled because of the pandemic, the Big West came to the realization it probably wouldn’t be able to host the 2021 version in California either.
It looked at Hawaii, Arizona and Las Vegas as potential new homes and ultimately chose Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay. “The student-athletes loved it because they said it felt like a real tournament because they were staying in a hotel. In Anaheim, they were driving from campus, playing and going home,” Butterly said.
While in town for the 2021 tournament, somebody asked Butterly if he had heard of Dollar Loan Center. “The retail place?” he answered.
Not quite. The “retail place” had naming rights for the gorgeous new arena in the Green Valley District of Henderson, which hosts minor league football and the Vegas Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate.
“We drove over to the construction site with a few athletic directors and the Golden Knights and their staff said they wanted the Big West there,” Butterly said. “We thought it would be a perfect venue and I told my membership that we better grab it before others find out about it. The WAC, WCC and Mountain West might’ve been looking, so within three weeks we had decided we were moving to the Dollar Loan Center.”
And when the Big West tipped off in the 2022 tournament, it was the venue’s first event even before the Silver Knights could get in a game.
“It was a little bit of trial and error that weekend right before the tournament started,” said Jessica Lantz, Big West assistant commissioner, strategic communications. “Does the WiFi work? Where do these cords go? They hadn’t done any events and we obviously hadn’t ever been there before. That was crazy in itself. They had ice down for the Silver Knights hockey team, but we were the first to put a basketball court down.”
The 2023 tournament went much smoother, as the UC-Santa Barbara men and Hawaii women took home titles in front of a crowd much larger than the year before.
“Fans are still warming up to the idea that we’re in the Las Vegas Valley in Henderson,” Butterly said. “We had more fans here in 2023 than we did in 2022 and we’re growing — last year we had one suite full and tonight we have 11. Our fans who have come to Henderson realize what a great city it is and how much there is to do here.”
The Big West is in year two of a three-year contract, with multiple three-year options after that. From speaking with ADs, players and coaches, Butterly is confident the Big West will be at Dollar Loan Center for years to come.
“I’ve had at least half of our ADs tell me that if they could take this facility and put it on their own campus, they’d be set for 50 years,” he said. “That tells you that the quality and size of this venue is perfect for the Big West.”