It has been two weeks since Nevada won its first Mountain West Conference basketball title.
It was an exciting week, and the only thing missing were spectators. Attendance was way down, as hotel room prices soared because of a construction convention, two other college basketball tournaments and NASCAR.
Rooms on the Strip were going for a minimum of $350. Ouch. Even the downtrodden place I stayed was over $100 a night and really worth about a third that much. A room at Motel 6 across from the MGM was $175. Absurd.
People stayed away in droves. The people missed some good basketball, but saved a ton of money.
I caught up with Craig Thompson, the MW commissioner in Milwaukee last week, and we discussed the event.
“The high prices were a very big factor,” he said. “We heard from a lot of families that they couldn’t afford to come this year.
“This was a rare occasion. We won’t have the same circumstances in 2018 or 2019. The construction convention comes into town every few years. We have faced that (convention) before but not with NASCAR, too. The price of hotels really deterred people.”
Sitting in a place that seats 18,000 and seeing it only a third full is depressing. Thompson believes it’s an aberration, though he admitted the conference will look around in the fall for potential sites in Las Vegas. The contract with UNLV and the Thomas & Mack Center ends in 2019.
There are a few smaller venues – Orleans Arena, (8,000), Mandalay Bay (10,000) and MGM Gardens (17,000). The Pac-12 played at MGM before shifting to T-Mobile. The WCC and WAC currently share the Orleans.
“In years past, we have needed those seats,” Thompson said. “There were nights where we had 14, 15 and 16,000 people in there. Being at Thomas & Mack is a great fit. You have Cox Pavilion and Mendenhall Center for practice.”
Has the conference considered moving the tournament around to campus sites like the Western Athletic Conference did?
“I don’t want to put the cart ahead of horse,” Thompson said. “I don’t anticipate that (idea) getting much play in conversation. We have had 18 tournaments, and 15 of them have been in Las Vegas.
“Vegas is a destination. People like to come here. They have their favorite places to stay; favorite places to eat. They come here and unpack for a week.”
Another thing that has kept crowds down is UNLV’s program has been in a downward spiral, and neither New Mexico nor San Diego State had great regular seasons.
Does UNLV need to be relevant again for the MW to succeed in Vegas?
“Not necessarily,” Thompson said. “San Diego State has drawn and New Mexico has drawn. They have sold 5 or 6,000 seats. It would help (because of location) if UNLV did well.”
Thompson said hotel space for MW teams wasn’t an issue. The teams stayed at the Rio. Thompson said he heard there were space issues for the Pac-12 tournament.
I asked Thompson about cutting the field to the top eight instead of all 11, and he pointed out that was supposed to happen, but the membership reverted back to all 11 schools playing.
Thompson pointed out that things could change based on leadership changes at the various institutions.
One thing that did change in the MW this year is the baseball playoff format. Only the top four teams make the postseason, and the regular-season winner hosts the event.