This time of year is supposed to be the most exciting week in college basketball. Trips to the NCAA Tournament on the line. The gyms are supposed to be packed, and everyone from Duke down to three-win Chicago State has their eyes on the field of 68.
But for some of these small conferences, like the MEAC, Big Sky, Sun Belt, and others, you turn on the game expecting a great atmosphere in some tiny gym with 3,000 seats where people are standing anywhere they can fit in…and instead they’re playing in what looks like an airplane hangar with 200 people inside, and a crowd that is so quiet you can hear every word the coaches are yelling at their players.
Take a look at that image up top from yesterday’s Big Sky game featuring Montana and North Dakota. Montana is arguably the most high-profile school in the league, and averaged nearly 3,400 fans a night for conference games, the second-best total in the Big Sky, and have a great gym that would make a great spot to host the league tournament. And yet, absolutely nobody was at that Big Sky Tournament game, which was hosted in Reno. There are like five people there on the floor seats, and two lonely dudes in the front row of the stadium seats.
Compare that to Radford last week, who hosted the championship game in the Big South Tournament:
It is PACKED. Seriously, there is probably well beyond what the listed capacity is for that gym. There are probably more people just in the frame of this screen grab than there were at any of the Big Sky games yesterday.
Now, there is a reason leagues like the Big Sky, MEAC, Sun Belt, and others hold the tournaments at a neutral site rather than on-campus, and I will explain why using a story that happened while I lived in Montana and they made the decision to move the tournament to Reno.
Schools HATE uncertainty. And often times in most basketball conferences, the race for the regular season crown would come down to the last games of the season, so coaches and athletics directors had no idea where they were going until 10pm on a Saturday night, a handful of days before the conference tournament is set to start. And if there is some other big event in the town of the team that finishes first, you run into the issue of trying to find hotel rooms for up to around 20 teams if the men and women play at the same site. That tends to be a problem in these smaller leagues where most of the schools are located in towns that aren’t exactly happening metropolises, no offense to Missoula, Montana or Pocatello, Idaho.
This exact scenario happened to the Big Sky while I lived in Montana, and before the next season started they had it sorted out that the next tournament would be in Reno. And I’m pretty sure that Reno put up a decent amount of money to give the league to come play there, thinking that fans of the schools would follow. They haven’t, and the league is already moving the tournament to Boise…which is another town with a school of its own that isn’t in the Big Sky.
So rather than have to deal with the headache of figuring out late-minute hotel and travel to a small town, the schools would rather have the games at a neutral site, preferably with lots of hotels, like a New Orleans, Reno, or Virginia Beach offers, so they can book the dates way in advance and know where they will be come March, no matter how good or bad they are that season.
But I still feel bad for those schools that have to play in that kind of environment. They spend most of the conference season playing in front of nice crowds in their own league where fans both at home and on the road are loud…to games that would make JV high school games blush at how few people are there.
I know it’s a headache, and I know that the schools hate having to plan at the last-minute, but a way better atmosphere and packed gyms are way better, at least in my opinion, than having a set location and 200 people in the gym.