RENO, Nevada – The Big Sky Conference is feeling right at home in the Biggest Little City in the World.
In hotel restaurants, bars and casino floors, fans are here to have fun and catch their favorite teams – all the while helping the conference make a little history with its first postseason tournament at a permanent site.
“It’s a lot of fun just walking around the hotel and seeing fans, players and coaches from the other teams,” Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford marveled after the Eagles’ first-round win over Northern Arizona.
“For the players, it really feels like a tournament and something special,” Hayford said.
And that’s the whole point. Until this year, the Big Sky was one of the last conferences to award its tournament to the regular-season champion. The atmosphere was great, but almost everything else fell short.
For the host team, home-court advantage was a mixed blessing and a logistical nightmare when the league race came down to the wire as it usually does. Going into last weekend, Montana and Weber State were in position to host; on the women’s side, Montana State, Eastern and Idaho all would have been scrambling – just in case.
“To get through that was always tough, and what some people miss is that it was hard on the host constitution – it’ a lot of pressure on the host team and coaches.”
Meanwhile, fans from seven other schools were scrambling for plane flights and hotel reservations; too often, they were priced out of the market and simply stayed home.
For the players and coaches, they were merely making a repeat visit to a campus gym they’d seen a few weeks earlier.
“That was our goal, to give everyone that postseason experience,” said Ron Loghry, a Big Sky deputy commissioner and the point man for the drive to find a permanent site.
The conversations began almost two years ago, and found an unlikely hero in Weber State coach Randy Rahe – who would have hosted this year’s men’s tournament under the old format.
Rahe knew that Weber State and Montana – the league’s most successful programs – would have the most to lose. “But he said, ‘that isn’t right,” Loghry recalls.
“That backing was good to have,” Loghry said.
After that, the Road to Reno was paved with a lot hard work, and it’s paid off. The schools have bought into the idea, and most have brought bands and cheerleaders. The seats are mostly empty – but fan enthusiasm has partially offset the lack of local interest.
“It’s exciting basketball and I thought that arena was rocking for a little while,” EWU women’s coach Wendy Schuller said after the Eagles’ three-point win over Sacramento State on Wednesday.
“The energy was great and it helped us down the stretch to have those folks behind us,”Schuller said.
More folks are getting behind the event, said Loghry while acknowledging that building local fan support is a top priority. Attendance for Thursday’s men’s quarterfinals was 2,365 – less than one-third of capacity in the 7,500-seat Reno Events Center.
Help is on the way, Loghry said.
Throughout the week, the event has been attended by downtown Reno hotel managers. “They told me, ‘We can help you grow this thing,” Loghry said.
And help more fans feel right at home.