Happy to see WAC tourney go neutral
Three or so years ago when the talks surfaced about a neutral site for the Western Athletic Conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, I was quick to endorse the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas as the best possible site.
I heard about the arena through the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association’s visits there for state basketball, and I attended a hockey game there two years ago. It’s a nice arena and there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
Imagine how happy I was when Las Vegas was selected to host the tournament in 2011 and 2012.
Las Vegas is the only logical place because it’s a destination city, so there is plenty to do when you aren’t watching basketball. And it’s close enough that Reno supporters can get there easily by plane or automobile. It beats the heck out of Sacramento and Salt Lake City, two cities that have been mentioned frequently as possible neutral sites.
Commissioner Karl Benson didn’t go into specific details of the bid, only to say that the Orleans would house and pay for all meals of all 16 teams for free.
Boyd Gaming, which owns the Orleans, has several properties around Vegas. The Orleans hotel is a great place. Besides the casino, there are a plethora of restaurants, a 16-screen movie theater and a bowling alley. A lot of entertainment without leaving the building.
I’m glad to see conference schools not chase the almighty dollar and strive for competitive equity instead, and not be swayed by NCAA executives. Myles Brand, president of the NCAA, allegedly told WAC presidents several years ago that it would be a mistake to play in Las Vegas because of the gambling issue. That was out of line. Teams in the WAC usually stay at casino hotels when they play at Nevada, so what’s the difference?
Coaches’ jobs are always on the line, and teams are never as confident as they should be when they know they have to go to some other school’s court and play the host school. A neutral site gives everybody an equitable shot, underdog and favorite alike. Coaches are just looking for a level playing field in the post-season.
I know that the host school doesn’t always win the title in the WAC tournament, but the host school usually makes the finals and that can make the difference between making the NCAA or not. New Mexico State made the finals both years the tournament was in Las Cruces. In three tournaments in Reno, the Wolf Pack has made the finals twice and won once. In three years at Tulsa, the host school made the finals three straight years and won just one, that being a 75-64 decision over Nevada.
This is a risk to be sure, but it’s one that the WAC needed to take if it wants to be considered a “real” conference. The West Coast Conference took a risk and look how well that paid off, and you’re talking about a bunch of private schools.
Benson admitted that it will take a good effort from all member schools in terms of ticket sales to make this work. The WCC sold its allotment of all-tournament passes for last year’s tournament at the Orleans, and Benson is obviously hoping that happens for the WAC. Schools like Louisiana Tech, San Jose State, Idaho and New Mexico State are schools that historically haven’t traveled well. That needs to change. Benson said there will be a minimum tickets that will need to be sold by each school. In past years, schools have been on the hook for 100 all-tournament passes. That isn’t a huge number. One thing I’m hoping is that more students might attend considering the tournament is in Las Vegas. Trust me, there are a lot worse things than spending three nights in Vegas if you are late teens or early 20s.
Benson, who attended the WCC championship game last March, was impressed with the way the Orleans was able to create a college atmosphere with the signage and school banners. That’s nice, but it’s the fans that make the atmosphere that makes an arena.
Hopefully WAC fans will go in droves to Vegas. The WAC has a two-year agreement, but that is likely to be extended if the first year is a success.