Big Sky tournament lays foundation for future in Boise
BOISE — Tom Wistrcill landed in Boise last Sunday morning and took an Uber from the airport. He arrived at his hotel and immediately felt what he’d been hoping for.
The Big Sky Conference commissioner wants Boise to turn from a host city to a home. Posters with the phrase “Big Sky in Boise” covered team hotels and nearby city streets. The impression emanating from the paraphernalia was exactly what Wistrcill desired.
“It’s exceeded our expectations,” Wistrcill said, “and we had pretty high expectations coming in.”
For tournament volunteer Joseph Beckman, the understanding of Boise’s quality fit took a little longer. He drove from Clearfield, Utah, outside of Ogden, at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday and arrived before the first men’s game of the week six hours later.
Beckman wasn’t sold at first, but by Wednesday’s third game, he recognized how many more fans were in attendance.
“It’s kind of like the fans realized, ‘Hey, we can all get here. Let’s take advantage of it. It’s closer,’” Beckman said. “… So it’s awesome.”
After the Big Sky held its postseason men’s and women’s conference tournament in Reno, Nevada, the past three years, the league moved to Boise. In the first of a three-year contract, the new site has been considered a success. While there’s still room to grow, the week has been widely viewed as an upgrade with increased attendance, a better fit for a college basketball conference tournament and a more centralized location.
Last year’s men’s semifinal between Eastern Washington and Southern Utah drew 1,236 fans. This year, the two teams met again in the same round and 2,900 fans attended. Wistrcill said about seven of the Big Sky’s 11 basketball schools are now within driving distance, whereas that could only be said about a couple schools a year ago.
“What’s been exciting to see is the response from the community, downtown, the businesses, the restaurants,” Wistrcill said. “To see the amount of people out walking around with the school colors on and all that, to me that makes it more than just a basketball game. It’s a tournament experience, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
The Reno Events Center had about 7,000 seats, many of which were left empty. The venue also wasn’t specifically geared toward sporting events, taking away from the most opportune time of the season with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
CenturyLink Arena in Boise has a capacity of 5,300 and is geared toward hosting basketball and hockey games. Wistrcill said that size is “perfect” for what the Big Sky wants. The less seats means the quicker the arena fills up even with less people. The structure of the seating, sloped more upward, has also helped maintain crowd noise. It’s all led to a better vibe.
“Very appreciative of Reno (for) hosting us for three years, but this is a basketball arena,” Montana State head coach Brian Fish said. “This gives you a feel for basketball. Our hotel is super nice. I don’t know, it feels like a tournament setting here.”
Though players, coaches and administrators have discussed the upgrade that Boise is, Montana head coach Travis DeCuire still disagrees with having a neutral site postseason tournament to begin with.
Prior to 2016, the regular-season conference champion hosted the tournament. The top seed’s fans wouldn’t have to travel while others wouldn’t know where to go until the end of the regular season. It created the best possible environment for the team that earned it but a difficult situation to coordinate last-minute travel plans for the rest of the conference’s fans.
DeCuire complimented Boise for being a clean, safe city that provides opportunities for fans to roam downtown. While Wistrcill wants to grow the conference’s presence in a city without a member institution, DeCuire would rather play where the Big Sky already exists.
“It’s March, man. These kids deserve to play in front of large crowds. When you have programs like us and Weber (State) that draw the way we draw, why not play in front of 7,000 people a game?” DeCuire said. “… When that championship game is on ESPN, the years we’re fortunate enough to have the No. 1 seed in the championship, I think the world needs to see what kind of support these programs have if we want the Big Sky to have a brand. Brand is all about exposure. So what are we exposing?”
In Year 1 in Boise, the conference is exposing a smaller arena that provides a better fan experience than in Reno. The atmosphere doesn’t compare to when the No. 1 seed would play on its home court, but the next step for Wistrcill is to dive deeper into the Boise community to attract fans without any previous affiliation with the Big Sky.
So with room for the tournament to improve, this week has laid the foundation for the future.
“If you can find a good home, then you can build off it,” Wistrcill said, “and people will always mark on their calendars, ‘Hey we’re going to Boise at this time.’”