Why Las Vegas Winning the Final Four Is a Crowning Achievement

The 2028 Final Four will be the culmination of years of work that changed the landscape for sports tourism in Las Vegas.

Why Las Vegas Winning the Final Four Is a Crowning Achievement

Few have played a larger role in the transformation of Las Vegas into the country’s hottest sports destination than MGM Resorts Vice President of Global Sports and Events Daniel Rush. The icing on the cake is the NCAA awarding the 2028 Final Four to Las Vegas.

“I’d call it a crowning achievement,” says Rush.

To put into perspective the NCAA’s decision, announced in November, the city could not legally host collegiate championships when Rush first sought to reimagine sports tourism in Las Vegas. You see, just as Bugsy Siegel had a dream in the desert, so did Rush and a crew of sports enthusiasts who saw Las Vegas as the final frontier for major sports events.

Jim Livengood, former athletic director at Arizona and UNLV, and D.J. Allen, co-founder and president of Xs & Os of Success, first approached Rush in 2013 about attracting college sports. By then, the writing was on the wall that the U.S. Supreme Court would legalize sports gambling. The decision came down in 2019, a little later than predicted, but the result was the same. No longer would Las Vegas be taboo for major sporting events.

Rush is a sports enthusiast, but not necessarily a romantic when it comes to college athletics. The push to welcome back the NCAA was a practical one. “We had a new building, T-Mobile Arena, and needed to fill dates.” 

Conference tournaments got the ball rolling. In 2020, Las Vegas broke through with nine NCAA championships—in ice hockey, golf and March Madness. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s Regionals (Sweet 16 and Elite 8) tips off March 23 and 25, 2023, at T-Mobile Arena.

Once again, logistics informed strategy. Lisa Motley, CSEE, director of sports marketing and special events at the Las Vegas CVA, says the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend is one of the busiest in Las Vegas already because of avid sports bettors. But business lightens up—ever so lightly, as hotel occupancy is still greater than 90%—for the Regionals and Final Four weekends.

“Sports programming is finding holes in the calendar,” notes Motley.

Trade shows and exhibitions are the big game in town in Las Vegas. Could the CVA and local hospitality ask events to move should a major championship come to town? Sure, but they prefer not to. So, in bidding in the latest Final Four cycle, 2028 made the most sense because there wasn’t a huge conference on the books that weekend. 
Such thinking could come into play again with another major sports event, but more on that in a moment.

On the eve of the NCAA’s reveal, Rush and Motley spent the night exchanging texts. “I wouldn’t say we were cocky, but we were confident,” says Rush.

Their feelings turned out to be justified.

Close Counts

If T-Mobile Arena was a game changer, it may be impossible to do justice to Allegiant Stadium. T-Mobile is the reason 110 basketball teams will play 100 games in Las Vegas next spring when factoring in conference tournaments, March Madness and the NIT. It will also host the NCAA’s Frozen Four in 2026.

Allegiant, though, is the reason the Raiders moved from Oakland. The move opened the door for the 2022 NFL Draft. Next up is Super Bowl LVIII in 2024.

The NCAA Tournament’s Final Four has long since outgrown indoor arenas. Having a state-of-the-art NFL stadium was the final piece of the puzzle.

Motley spent the last 11 months putting together the proposal to host the Final Four. The pages-long document can be summarized in one word: infrastructure. 

“Our entire footprint is within 4 square miles,” says Motley.

Harry Reid International Airport is minutes from the Las Vegas Strip. Las Vegas Convention Center will host a fan fest. A music festival will occur at the University of Nevada Las Vegas—a legendary college basketball school in its own right. Elon Musk’s Boring Tunnel featuring Teslas to get to and from hotels and resorts makes transportation easy, efficient and eco-friendly.

A destination built on hospitality seems destined to shine on the biggest stage. So confident were Motley and her team that they pitched the NCAA on hosting the Men’s and Women’s Final Four, as well as Division II and III championships, and NIT, over the same weekend.

“It’s realistic for us,” Motley says. ”We didn't shy away from the fact that this is what we do every day of the year.”

That dream will have to wait, as the NCAA opted to spread the championship wealth across various destinations.

Full Speed Ahead

The bucket list keeps getting shorter. Formula 1 Racing announced plans for a race through the city in November 2023. 

Then there is the College Football Playoff. In its current format, the CFP overlaps with the Consumer Electronics Show, the world’s largest trade show and a Las Vegas mainstay. But recently, detailed expansion plans push the championship toward the end of January—much more doable dates for Motley, Rush and company. 

Rush describes massive events like the Super Bowl and March Madness as one-offs that Las Vegas may host every five to six years. That leaves plenty of dates and hotel rooms to fill. 

“Every event is a win for us,” says Motley, who says she’d love to tattoo each event Las Vegas hosts throughout her body.

Rush jokes her 5-foot-3-inch frame makes it easy. He, on the other hand, stands over 6 feet tall, so it would take a lot more ink.

How times have changed.

Photo Credit: LVCVA