Friday, March 6, 2009 | 2:10 a.m.
- It was fun while it lasted (3-11-03)
Beyond the Sun
When the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament was staged in Denver, two Utah fans packed up their golf clubs and waved goodbye to their wives.
The men said they were going to watch the Utes play some hoops.
And instead, they flew to Las Vegas.
They golfed, they gambled, they ate well and they had a ball watching the league tournament on large television screens in a sports book.
When the Utes visited the Thomas & Mack Center in late January, those two fans sat near UNLV athletic director Mike Hamrick and regaled him with their tale.
That’s the draw of the entertainment capital of the world, which likely hasn’t surprised the Mountain West Conference future basketball championships site subcommittee.
Fill in your favorite something-by-subcommittee punch line here. Did they require a sub-subcommittee – sponsored by Subway? – to conjure up that footlong title?
The future site subcommittee, a super-secret collection of six high-ranking officials from Mountain West schools, would be a fine topic for a thesis on wasted time and money.
It was assembled to appease a few coaches and executives who don’t know the definition of hypocrisy.
Things to do in Denver
The griping of a few coaches and officials led to the disastrous 2004 move of the Mountain West tournament from the Mack to the Pepsi Center in Denver for three years.
In two of those seasons, poor attendance that averaged about 8,000 placed the MWC 10th among the nation’s conference tournaments.
The Atlantic 10 finished higher one of those seasons, the Western Athletic Conference and Conference USA had a better attendance average than the MWC in the other season.
The best Denver attendance average, in 2005, didn’t even hit 9,000.
The MWC had never finished below seventh, among its national peers, in the first four years the tournament was staged in Las Vegas. The two years before it moved to Denver, Vegas crowds averaged 13,450.
The true bottom line, according to one league official, is much more glaring, especially in these economically challenged times.
When it was in Denver, MWC schools took home about $15,000 apiece. That’s being generous. Since it moved back to Las Vegas in 2007, each program has annually pocketed ten times that figure.
The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, among other entities supporting the Thomas & Mack Center and Las Vegas as the tournament venue, has only sweetened its enticements to the league.
Think the Chamber of Commerce in Albuquerque can come close to matching what Las Vegas will offer in hotel, dining and entertainment options?
First-year New Mexico coach Steve Alford hadn’t even taken his team to a league tournament before he started barking about the injustice of UNLV playing it on its home court.
The Lobos lost to Utah in overtime last year, then the Utes lost to the Rebels in a semifinal game.
The past two years, UNLV has beaten BYU in the title game and earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher has also been an outspoken critic of the event being played in UNLV’s arena.
Under terms of the current contract, the Mack will play host to the tournament this year and in 2010.
What kicked in about a year ago was exploring the option for the ensuing three years of the deal, through 2013.
The league sent a Request for Proposal (RFP) to officials representing 27 arenas in 16 cities, including Anaheim, Calif., and Phoenix.
In October, that list was whittled to Las Vegas (the Mack), Albuquerque (The Pit), Salt Lake City (Energy Solutions Arena and The E-Center), San Diego (Cox Arena) and the Pepsi Center in Denver.
Denver was a misguided move that should not be forgotten.
The E-Center (10,207) and Cox Arena (12,414) fall way short of the Mack’s capacity of 18,500, and an executive who requested anonymity said the refurbished Pit will hold less than its current 18,000.
Even if it didn’t, anyone care for bench seating?
Energy Solutions can hold 20,000 for basketball, but BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said in May that the league tournament should be played in a warm climate.
The average high and low March temperature for Salt Lake City is 53 and 33, respectively. Albuquerque is 62 and 34, San Diego is 66 and 54, and Las Vegas is 69 and 47.
Holmoe, one of the members of the footlong subcommittee, told the Deseret News that there are plenty of places that would be considered a “destination city” for fans that would be easy to get to.
“It should be in a warm climate,” he said in May, “and it needs to be accessible to fans in the league.”
Asked about his warm-weather statement Thursday, Holmoe declined to comment.
“I shouldn’t comment while the selection process is underway,” Holmoe wrote in an e-mail. “We’ll do our very best to do what is right for the conference.”
UNLV associate athletic director Lisa Kelleher also is a member of the ultra-secret footlong committee, but she referred all inquiries about it to Dan Butterly, the league’s associate commissioner for marketing.
Butterly declined to reveal the other members of the subcommittee, saying it’s an “internal” issue that will be studied and forwarded to the conference’s Joint Council in May.
A senior administrator at San Diego State, possibly athletic director Jeff Schemmel, also is believed to be on the subcommittee but that could not be confirmed.
The Joint Council will pass along its recommendation to the MWC Board of Directors for a final ruling in June.
Viva Las Vegas?
At the league’s preseason media day in Las Vegas in October, Alford, who favors a neutral site, said he has learned that he has nothing to say in the matter.
The Pit is not exactly neutral, but it could fit into a rotation of arenas if making money is not a priority for the league’s hierarchy.
What is certain, said several league executives who didn’t want to be named, is that the discussions about the future of the tournament will be heated over the next few months.
“It will be real interesting,” one said.
A year ago, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson was explicit in his views about Las Vegas.
“Our fans, alumni and season-ticket holders have been resoundingly loud in stating that they want the tournament in Las Vegas,” Thompson said. “I’ve always said that there is only one Las Vegas, and it happens to be in the Mountain West Conference.
“That’s a real advantage for us, because it truly is a destination city. I think what it comes down to is that (Las Vegas) is where the fans want to attend.”
Will Thompson have a say in the matter?
Will the footlong committee, the Joint Council or even the Board of Directors heed those fans?
“Oh yes,” said a high-ranking MWC official.
Or will those two Utah fans again have to pack their bags and tell their wives they’re heading out to the Mountain West basketball tournament, then jump on the next plane to Las Vegas?