PORTLAND, Ore. -- Year 1 of the conjoined Big Sky Conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, held last March in Reno, Nevada, was a modest success by most accounts, which puts an onus on growth and development with the rerun less than two months away.
League commissioner Andrea Williams, who was still employed by the Big Ten last year and is just seven months on the job with the Big Sky, knows this.
“I think as we go into Year 2, we have to be mindful that last year was a starting point, a jumping off point for us,” Williams said. “We can’t just duplicate what we did last year and think that that’s OK.
“I think the expectations are going to be higher for all those who attend: the teams, the people on campus and our fans. We have to take a look at that and find ways to improve or enhance it.”
The one lingering gripe, if you can call it that, from last year’s undertaking at the Reno Events Center is that the attendance was not up to par. But according to Williams, there were roughly 20,000 tickets sold for the men’s sessions and 12,000 for the women’s, which divide into decent averages for the six-day event.
But was it enough?
“From being on the outside, I can’t say yes or no,” Williams said. “Certainly it would have been great to sell out those sessions. We’re not there yet, but we certainly want to build toward a percentage increase on an annual basis with our attendance.
“It’s the local community that has to come out. It’s going to be based on the fans who are following specific teams. They come to their teams’ games but may not stay once they’re out of the tournament. With the extra focus and effort on the marketing element, the expectation is that we grow from last year.
“Once we get two years under our belt, I think that’s when we take a look at what were our promotional or advertising strategies, what were our numbers, where are the areas that we’re missing the demographics that we know want to come to our games, and then strategically identify those areas of focus moving forward.”
For years, the Big Sky conducted its postseason tournaments at the home arenas of its regular-season champions, and the looming question a year ago at this time was whether fans and alumni would travel to a neutral site in support.
They may not have turned out in droves, but for the Big Sky and its hard-working staff, it was a start. Now it’s time to move the needle.
The positive news is that both the league and the Reno/Tahoe visitors authority assert that hotel bookings and ticket sales through the box office are up in comparison to last year.
A potential caveat, though, is the fact that the Big Sky tournament is only booked in Reno through the 2018 season. Williams is admittedly a tad uneasy about not having a more long-term deal in place, although Reno figures to be in the running again once bids for the next contract come up.
(Visit Billings, the tourism arm of the local chamber of commerce, made a bid for the men’s tournament in 2015 but was unsuccessful.)
“To be honest, I’m a little uncomfortable being where we are right now without having a site for 2019 and beyond,” Williams said. “We need to shore that up. Reno has been a great partner, and so they would certainly be a part of that process and we want to continue to have those conversations with them.”
Reno, with the moderate size of its events center and the convenience of its proximity to a huge numbers of hotel rooms -- the Circus Circus, Eldorado and Silver Legacy hotels are just a block away -- give the city a distinct advantage.
But in the end, neutrality is the No. 1 priority of both the Big Sky and the presidents of its member institutions. Williams, therefore, has no interest in moving the postseason tournaments back to the campuses of regular-season champions in the future.
“The consistent theme that I have heard is that it was so important to play these championships at a neutral site,” she said. “That was the best thing that came out of Year 1, but certainly as we move into our second year it’s about the experience. How do we treat our teams and our student-athletes? What is the experience of our fans and alumni? What can we do that is going to enhance that experience?
“I think Year 2 is really going to be revealing.”
This year’s event will be held March 6-11 at the Reno Events Center. Tickets and hotel rooms are available for purchase at the tournament website, RoadToReno.com.
Fans and teams from Montana and Montana State are assigned to stay at the Silver Legacy Resort.