Las Vegas and college basketball: What a team they could be

Associated Press

Debbie Antonelli, left, talks with play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins before the start of a women’s basketball game between Duke and Notre Dame at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Debbie and Frankie Antonelli wait impatiently each day for an envelope that contains a letter that contains words that contain all the world.

Born with Down syndrome 18 years ago, Frankie thrives today thanks in part to the determination of his parents, Debbie and Frank. They push their son, his two brothers and everyone in his orbit to make Frankie’s life as much like anyone else’s as possible.

The Antonellis hope that envelope holds Frankie’s acceptance letter to a certificate program at Clemson University, two hours away from their home near Charleston, S.C. There, Frankie can learn to be independent and experience college like any other student.

“I told my husband, ‘Please, please, please do not let him open that,’ ” Debbie said. “You’re gonna have to tape that. You can’t do it without me.”

Debbie might not be home when those words arrive because she will be working somewhere in America as one of the most prominent basketball analysts on TV. Last week, she became the first woman in 22 years to broadcast games in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Barriers and rules bend around Antonelli’s drive to better her home and career, so the weight of challenging the NCAA’s firm stance against Las Vegas hosting collegiate championship events does little to slow her.

“I came up with an idea, used all my ideas working in the game, my marketing background — everything I have, I’ve put into this idea,” Antonelli said.

The idea: move the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament to Las Vegas, centralizing on the Strip an event played this year in hot spots like Bridgeport, Conn., and Stockton, Calif., from March 24-27. Antonelli’s challenge remains convincing the NCAA Board of Governors to change its long-standing rule that its championship events cannot take place in a state with legalized gambling.

“Generally speaking, the NCAA championship sports wagering policy prohibits the conducting of any championship session in a state with legal wagering that is based on single-game betting,” NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham said. “This policy is in place to ensure the integrity of the game, provide consistency in awarding NCAA championships and address concerns for student-athlete well-being.”

Basketball already pervades the desert in early March now that the Pac-12, West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference joined the Mountain West in contesting their conference playoffs here in recent years. The NCAA does not restrict where conferences host their championships, and those tournaments generate an estimated nongaming impact of more than $20 million annually, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Sustained success of conference tournaments might help Las Vegas soothe NCAA officials, who last year softened to the point of allowing Las Vegas Events to bid on championships in wrestling, ice hockey and men’s basketball for the first time. Yet legislation proposed last year by the Mountain West to open Nevada for business gathers dust as the NCAA prepares to award regional sites for 2019 through 2022 in mid-April.

Former UNLV Athletics Director Jim Livengood consults for Antonelli, and he hoped Las Vegas could prepare a bid for the Sweet 16 within this cycle, but admits at this late date, the timing “has a little bit of a rope around us.”

“All of this, all the planning, all the work with the women’s basketball committee, with the oversight committee, the women’s basketball coaches committee, is a little bit of a fruitless effort without being able to have NCAA championships in Nevada,” Livengood said. “That’s the big elephant in the room.”

That elephant doesn’t intimidate Antonelli. In fact, she wants to grab it by the tusks by rebranding the Sweet 16 to appeal to the younger male demographic obsessed with fantasy sports and wagering that already comes to Las Vegas for March Madness.

“I don’t know how many fantasy football teams combined there were under my roof,” Antonelli said. “Women don’t do that as much, but that’s what guys do. Why would we stick our head in the sand and kind of ignore that?”

The Las Vegas plan began forming in Antonelli’s head six years ago as she watched the game she played collegiately at North Carolina State struggle to gain new fans. The four women’s basketball regional sites attracted 51,588 fans to 12 games in 2016, an increase of 2,000 from the previous year but still an average of just 4,299 people per game.

Women’s basketball loses $14 million annually, according to NCAA President Mark Emmert, leaving revenue generators football and men’s basketball to subsidize it and other sports that don’t draw well.

“When you look at the women’s tournament, and we’re losing millions, why are we losing millions and why do we continue to do it that way?” Antonelli said.

Two years ago, Antonelli assembled a local consulting team that includes Livengood, sports marketing expert D.J. Allen and Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson. Key among the group is Livengood, a former chairman of the men’s Division I selection committee for March Madness working to leverage his ties to pitch Las Vegas.

“Jim has been able to introduce the idea to top-level people at the NCAA,” Antonelli said.

The group toured potential venues three months ago, including the Orleans Arena, Mandalay Bay Events Center, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Thomas & Mack Center and T-Mobile Arena — Antonelli’s preferred option after working with event company BD Global on the Play4Kay Shootout women’s tournament in the new facility in December.

The strength of the Las Vegas brand alone cannot solve all Antonelli sees as ailing in an event that ranks 89th among 90 NCAA championships in terms of profitability, according to Livengood. The marketer in Antonelli, who gave away a new car at a women’s game while working at Ohio State in 1993, comes out to bust this barrier.

Antonelli wants to repackage the Sweet 16 as a destination event, not only to increase attendance but to utilize what she considers economies of scale to reduce the cost of putting on the regional rounds across the country.

“Instead of putting on an event in four different cities, you come to one market, you have one staff, you limit the number of arenas and you work with the destination,” Allen said. “With Las Vegas being a destination location, you would anticipate higher revenues when it comes to ticket sales and everything that comes with that.”

Her second major prong requires the heaviest lift, perhaps as much a challenge with the NCAA as lifting the Nevada ban. Antonelli wants to separate the Sweet 16 from the NCAA Corporate Champion and Corporate Partner Program, which controls sponsorship and advertising revenue for all collegiate championships.

Antonelli understands through conversations with collegiate officials that contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars could be difficult to circumnavigate, but still sees a chance to sell inventory specific to a rebranded Sweet 16.

“Who is selling women’s basketball and what is being sold? The NCAA Corporate Partner program was created for the men’s tournament, and few NCAA Corporate Partners activate on the women’s side,” Antonelli wrote in a recent article for FastModel Sports.

Opportunities could extend to a career fair and a distance-learning center for student-athletes, Antonelli said, suggesting potential sponsors like IBM and Intel.

First, though, the NCAA must unlock Nevada’s doors. Antonelli vows to be ready when that barrier falls.

“In a golf analogy, I think we’re 3 feet from knocking in a putt for a championship,” Antonelli said. “(My team is) always like, ‘Be patient.’

“I’ve been patient for six years.”