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Omaha has the College World Series. Oklahoma City has the Women's College World Series. Las Vegas has Ceasars Palace, golf courses, Britney Spears and ... college women's basketball?
If longtime hoops analyst Debbie Antonelli has her way, the answer to that last question will be a resounding "yes."
On Monday in a landmark move, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), the federal law that limited sports betting to one state, Nevada, for the last 25 years.
The case is expected to dramatically alter the landscape of sports betting, bringing an estimated $150 billion industry above ground. The ruling means each individual state will decide if its residents can bet on sports. It also opens the door for the NCAA to start holding championships events in Las Vegas, though first the organization that governs college sports will have to remove from its bylaws language that prohibits championship events in Nevada.
Sin City has been prepping for this.
Pat Christenson is president of Las Vegas Events, a private non-profit group that helps secure and produce about 40 special events a year, including NBA Summer League, the National Finals Rodeo, the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon and multiple major music festivals.
During the NCAA's last bidding cycle, Christenson said LVE bid to host three NCAA championship events: wrestling, hockey and a men's basketball regional.
"We were led to believe that our bid would be considered regardless of the (NCAA bylaw) issue," Christenson told USA TODAY, adding that it wasn't until after the bids were submitted that the NCAA told LVE it was waiting until the Supreme Court ruling to determine if Vegas was a viable option.
The NCAA released a statement Monday after the news that read, in part, "While we are still reviewing the decision to understand the overall implications to college sports, we will adjust sports wagering and championship policies to align with the direction from the court."
In other words: Now that the verdict is in, expect the floodgates to open. Antonelli will be the first one through.
For the past eight years, the college basketball analyst who works both men's and women's games has lobbied for the NCAA women's tournament to scrap its current format of four regional sites and bring all 16 teams together in Vegas for one major showcase event.
"We (women's sports) are usually a tag-along, we're an add-on, a bonus," Antonelli told USA TODAY. "I want to be our own inventory. ... I want to be a sellable entity. Vegas wants us. They want women's basketball. Think about what we could do if we had the Sweet 16 there.
"I imagine it could be ingrained in the community like baseball and softball are with their championships. I don't think Omaha and Oklahoma City started out as destination cities -- the NCAA brought sports to communities that wanted them. Vegas already is a destination city."
Jim Livengood, who works as a consultant with Las Vegas Events, has had his share of experience with NCAA championship events after almost three decades as a Division I athletics director at Southern Illinois, Washington State, Arizona and UNLV. He's also a former chair of the men's selection committee. He understands how the NCAA operates, and he believes in Antonelli's idea.
"Nothing happens overnight, but this is going to get people thinking in a different way," Livengood told USA TODAY. "There are a number of things changing within the NCAA. I mean, we have alcohol at NCAA championship events now -- who would have thought that would ever happen?"
Antonelli envisions fans being able to purchase a "Sweet 16 package" that would allow visitors to experience all Vegas has to offer: "So maybe you get tickets to all the games, a trip to the Hoover Dam, a round of golf and a show at Ceasars," she explained. "Or, you could get a package with tickets to all the games, plus dinner with Aja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces. There are so many possibilities."
Coaches like the idea, too.
"The Sweet 16 to Vegas is a great idea," Louisville coach Jeff Walz told USA TODAY via text message. "It would allow fans to purchase plane tickets in advance, knowing they'd be watching the top 16 teams remaining. As a fan of one particular team, I would still be apt to travel to Vegas even if my team didn't make it because of all the activities to do besides watching basketball. I feel it's a destination spot and I believe the attendance would be very good."
Antonelli knows she has some time to get everyone on board: Dates for the 2019 and 2020 NCAA women's basketball regionals are already set, but the NCAA is in the middle of the bidding cycle for 2021-24. The earliest the men's Final Four could get to Las Vegas is 2027.
"I do think baseball and softball have the model we can build from," Antonelli said. "I've always believed we're going to go to Vegas. And we're going to get there before the men."
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