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May 25, 2022

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Bern’s-Eye View: New arena will help keep Las Vegas a basketball epicenter

Las Vegas Arena Topping Off Ceremony

Steve Marcus

Workers gather around the final steel beam during a topping off ceremony for the Las Vegas Arena on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Representatives from MGM Resorts International and AEG, contractors Hunt-Penta and elected officials were on hand to celebrate the installation of the arena’s final steel beam. The $375 million arena is scheduled to open in Spring 2016.

Arena Topping Off Ceremony

Workers take video on their phones as the final steel beam is lifted into place during a topping off ceremony for the Las Vegas Arena Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Representatives from MGM Resorts International and AEG, contractors Hunt-Penta and elected officials were on hand to celebrate the installation of the arena's final steel beam. The $375 million arena is scheduled to open in Spring 2016. Launch slideshow »

The final steel beam is in place for the building that will one day host a weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament. Probably.

On Wednesday, representatives from MGM Resorts International, AEG, elected officials and dozens of others involved one way or another in the Las Vegas Arena project gathered at the work site for the topping off ceremony. After construction workers and others signed the beam — with an American flag and a small tree attached to the top, both symbols and good-luck charms — one of about 7,000 pieces of steel used in the entire project was raised and placed into position while Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and Heart provided a soundtrack.

It’s a milestone moment, one of many to be checked off since officials broke ground on the plot between the New York-New York and Monte Carlo a little more than a year ago. For six months the focus of the $375 million effort was mostly on the foundation underground and then the next six were about reaching higher and higher, until that final beam was locked in two days ahead of schedule.

Unlike most arena-related conversations in Las Vegas, this one has been fun because the topic isn’t whether the thing will get built. This is happening.

The structure already has its shape, naming rights are forthcoming and everything is on track for a ballyhooed opening in April. A brief tour pointed out the future locker room areas, the layout for the 42 suites up around the concourse level and even the approximate location of a hockey net once the current dirt floor gives way to ice.

The first event at the arena is still unknown, but unquestionably the most discussed one is hockey, because prospective owner Bill Foley appears very close to making the NHL the first of the four major sports leagues to establish a team in Las Vegas. When that becomes official it’s going to get a deservedly large amount of attention and excitement, but some of that should already be spent on what this 20,000-seat arena is going to do for the future of basketball in Las Vegas.

No one can say for certain how hockey will be received on the Strip, though I’d make its success a slight favorite. What we do know is that the valley loves hoops, from the NBA Summer League in July and four conference tournaments in March to UNLV, high school and grassroots events drawing crowds throughout the year.

The arena is NBA-ready — capacity for basketball is about 18,500 — though let’s table team talks for a few years. Like Mom always said, one professional franchise at a time.

So what’s the immediate basketball impact? UNLV is in discussions to play the first game in the arena, a Dec. 10, 2016, date with Duke. More NBA exhibitions could be coming down the pike, and the Pac-12 will likely move its postseason into the new building, leaving open the MGM Grand Garden Arena for the Mountain West (doubtful) or perhaps a more faraway league looking to capitalize on the March epicenter of basketball.

Speaking of basketball in March, Las Vegas is already the top destination in the country for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, aka the best 96 hours of the year, including the tournament’s host cities. The stigma around gambling has long been an excuse used by the NCAA, an organization that created the term student-athlete in order to avoid a workman’s comp lawsuit following a football player’s death, to ban Vegas when handing out NCAA Tournament bids.

Last November the NCAA, an organization slowly losing its grip on the workforce that lined its pockets while the players sometimes hold their own out empty, assigned hosts for tournaments for the next three years. In 2018, both Boise State’s Taco Bell Arena and San Diego State’s Viejas Arena will host opening weekend games.

Does anyone honestly think that a new state-of-the-art arena in the city that already brings in more basketball watchers than anywhere else in the country can’t do just as well, if not better, hosting that event? The only thing that’s held Las Vegas back is politics and those are turning in the city’s favor.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has opened his league’s arms to the obvious truth that regulated gambling is good for business. Other leagues and organizations will follow as logic slowly chips away at that stigma.

And as soon as enough of those fears and worries crumble to the ground — and they will, perhaps even by the next time bids are handed out in 2017 — the Las Vegas Arena is a sparkling destination soon to be ready and waiting.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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