BILLINGS — Reno, the Biggest Little City in the World, was a big letdown for the Big Sky Conference. Now it’s Boise’s turn to inject a shot of life into the league’s postseason basketball pursuits.
The second iteration of the Big Sky’s all-inclusive, neutral-site tournament for men’s and women’s hoops tips off Monday at CenturyLink Arena in downtown Boise, Idaho, a city teeming with energy and a desire to make itself the conference’s full-time postseason home.
After an initial three-year run in Reno, Nevada, where local support fizzled and ticket sales flopped, the Big Sky is counting on Boise for the boost it needs.
“We’re proud of what we started. We’re not going to build this overnight,” said Jon Kasper, the league’s associate commissioner for championships and media partnerships. “We really feel good about Boise because, No. 1, it’s in driving distance for more of our fan bases.
“No. 2, Boise is just so much more of a Big Sky city. We just get a sense that there are so many more of our alumni there, and it’s not just Idaho and Idaho State.”
Champions will always be decided on a 94-foot stretch of court, and that’s the case no matter where a tournament resides. But Reno — no disrespect to its bustling casinos and blinding lights — is largely situated outside of the footprint of the Big Sky’s flagship universities and those that typically draw the most support.
Reno successfully bid for the three-year hosting rights for the Big Sky tournament beginning in 2016. Until then it had always been contested at the home arena of the regular-season champion.
When it came time for the league to re-imagine the event, the league kicked the tires on Las Vegas. Reno also resubmitted a bid. But Boise, a burgeoning city of 225,000, was the logical destination.
“Why didn’t it work in Reno? Well, it’s something our fan base wasn’t used to, it wasn’t drivable, and we didn’t get local support, bottom line,” Kasper said. “We have to get people to buy tickets. I’ll tell you that our ticket sales — and granted, they were hardly anything in Reno — are way, way better thus far in Boise.”
Eric Trapp, a University of Idaho grad and the president and general manager of both CenturyLink Arena and the Idaho Steelheads hockey team (the venue’s main tenant), talked at length about Boise’s vibrancy and what the city has to offer.
It begins with the arena, which seats roughly 5,500 for basketball and is what Kasper called “an upgrade” from the Reno Events Center. CenturyLink Arena sits in the center of downtown and is within walking distance to a plethora of restaurants, hotels and watering holes.
The adjoining Grove Plaza is an urban hub that Big Sky director of championships Alex Kelly said will be used to create a festival-type atmosphere throughout the week, including a “Fan Fest” with musical performances by local bands, noon ball, a 3-point contest, a skills challenge, pep rallies, a pizza eating contest and other events.
“I think when the Big Sky came and they saw the facility and the area and just everything around it, they were impressed,” said Trapp, who was instrumental in acquiring the tournament. “And we’re hoping we can do our best to show that to everybody and showcase what a great town Boise is, and our facility too.”
The Big Sky is working with the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Downtown Boise Association, the Southwest Idaho Travel Association and the Idaho Department of Commerce to market the tournament.
Taylor Williamson is the CVB’s sports sales manager. He grew up in Reno — his dad played football for the Wolf Pack. A Boise State alum, Williamson believes the locals will turn out more than they did in Reno partly because of the work being done to spread the word.
If all goes according to plan, Williamson hopes Boise’s three-year turn is just the beginning.
“I think I speak for everyone who’s had their hand in it, we would love to see this become a permanent event that is here in Boise for the foreseeable future,” Williamson said.
“I know we signed a three-year deal, but we’re really hoping to blow the doors off this first year and really show what Boise can do. We hope this will be here for a long, long time.”
The idea of a neutral-site postseason still doesn’t sit well with some Big Sky fans who liked the way things were in the past — despite the fact the vast majority of Division I conferences now conduct their tournaments off campus.
The bottom line is the league has won only three NCAA tournament games since it expanded to 64 teams in 1985. For anybody involved, that’s not good enough.
“It’s something our administrators and coaches pushed for for quite a long time,” Kasper said. “It’s something that we should be doing, especially for our student-athletes. We want to make it a good experience for them. We’re here to make our student-athlete experience the best it can be.”
For all its growing pains, Reno was a starting point. Will Boise make the difference?
“I’ll say this about Reno,” Kasper said. “Anyone that we talked to that went never had a really bad word to say about the experience that they had. They liked it. We’re just going to elevate that in Boise.
“We just need people to come and experience it. They’re going to have a good time. They’re going to watch great basketball and be able to enjoy downtown Boise.”