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Big Sky expects bigger, better experience next week in Reno

Idaho women’s basketball players celebrate their Big Sky Conference title last year in Reno, Nevada. (Lance Iversen / Associated Press)
Idaho women’s basketball players celebrate their Big Sky Conference title last year in Reno, Nevada. (Lance Iversen / Associated Press)

So, Eastern Washington basketball fans, still not sure about tripping to Reno, Nevada, for the Big Sky Conference basketball tournament?

You could be spending next week in North Dakota.

A glance at the standings – both men’s and women’s – shows North Dakota in first place with one week left in the regular season.

Under the old Big Sky format, that would have sent players, coaches, families and fans of 23 teams to remote Grand Forks, North Dakota, where the temps are in the single digits and ice hockey is the sport of choice at a school that doesn’t plan on staying much longer in the conference anyway.

And while the Road to Reno had a few potholes in Year One, the overall feedback was positive, and the conference expects better things from the second edition scheduled for next week.

“The feeling was unanimous that last year was a great first step and building for the future,” said Big Sky Commissioner Andrea Williams, who came on board last summer but is a big fan of having a permanent site for the league’s premier event.

“We want people to know that this is big-time,” said Williams, who extolled the virtues of downtown Reno, including its “walkability,” entertainment and proximity to the arena at the 4,500-seat Reno Events Center.

Williams said that the conference plans to make the tournament feel even more big-time with branding and marketing efforts that began last summer.

The upshot is that both the league and the Reno-Tahoe Visitors Authority report that hotel bookings and ticket sales through the box office are ahead of last year’s pace.

That’s important, because last year’s attendance was below expectations. Ticket sales were respectable – 20,000 for the men’s tournament and 12,000 for the women’s – but not nearly that number showed up in the stands.

“We want to improve the atmosphere and have it speak to March Madness,” Williams said.

There’s some pressure to raise local awareness. The Big Sky’s contract with the Reno-Tahoe Visitors Authority is for three years, and this is year two.

With that in mind, the conference is already going through the same type of bidding process that landed the tournament in Reno last year.

“We need to identify where we want to be hosting in 2019,” Williams said even as the conference works hard to make sure that this year’s tournament a success.

Eastern Washington athletic director Bill Chaves is on board with the idea of a permanent site even as both the Eagle men’s team contends for a regular-season title.

“I thought last year went exceptionally well,” said Chaves, who appreciates that fans and friends can book their stays months in advance.

Chaves compared the old system to “hosting a wedding and deciding two days beforehand where it’s going to be.”

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