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Empty seats no way to woo NCAA event

For years, the NCAA has been boycotting Las Vegas.

It’s not a secret; there’s no mystery. Years ago, the folks who run intercollegiate sports connected sports betting with point-shaving scandals. Gamblers waved some dollars under the nose of a cash-strapped college athlete and instantly the kid was throwing passes into the fourth row.

There’s evidence that happened but the perps were illegal gamblers who had nothing in common with the highly regulated sports gambling industry of 21st century Nevada. Don’t let the facts get in the way. Paint with a broad brush.

But finally the winds of change have gotten to the NCAA. Maybe it was NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s op-ed piece in The New York Times saying it was time for sports to come to terms with gambling. Maybe it was the experience of having scandal-free league championships here for more than a decade. Maybe it was the simple fact that nobody hosts a better party than Las Vegas.

Whatever the cause, the time is right for the NCAA to revisit its rules against “championship events” in towns with gaming. And I’ve been impressed with the organizational push — and the PR campaign — Las Vegas is mounting.

Former UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood is serving as one of the frontmen for a new postseason college basketball tournament that cleverly skirts the ban in the interest of demonstrating what a successful event would look like here.

And the backers really have built a better mousetrap — 16 teams in one place to control costs in a city boosters love. They’ve even identified a getable first NCAA “championship event:” a women’s basketball regional.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

A lot of markets stand on their civic heads for a whiff of national exposure. Think Maui, Hawaii; Alaska; Puerto Rico in basketball; Shreveport, La.; Memphis, Tenn.; Boise, Idaho, with college football bowl games. It’s a civic undertaking.

Here in Vegas, we don’t do that. When two Thanksgiving college tournaments drew strong fields here, we yawned. The MGM Grand Garden arena and the Orleans Arena were essentially empty for those games. And the unforgiving TV camera noticed.

If we’re trying to impress the NCAA, rows of empty seats don’t make a strong sales pitch. Sure, there are excuses. Tough week for the locals; nothing at stake to motivate the fans. But for such polished events experts, a small investment in papering the house might have been a wise investment.

In a world where perception is reality, we looked decidedly not ready for prime time.

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