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Official Review by Andrew Maurins, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
For forty seasons, the Big Sky Conference was set in its ways when it came to crowning the champion of its conference basketball tournament. From 1976 to 2015, the regular season champion earned the right to host the conference tournament on their home floor. On one hand, it gave even more incentive for teams to fight for that #1 spot, and guaranteed swift ticket sales for the home team. But on the other hand, it created logistical and financial nightmares in scheduling travel and hotel arrangements for at least half a dozen teams on less than a week’s notice. In a mid-major conference whose institutions span from North Dakota to California, that’s no easy task.
In 2015, the decision was made to bring the Big Sky Conference Tournaments to a fixed – and truly neutral – location. Reno, Nevada won the bid to host the league’s basketball tournaments at the Reno Events Center downtown, also home to the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League. Now in the second year of a three-year deal with the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, the Big Sky’s 24 men’s and women’s basketball teams can all comfortably make plans months, rather than days, in advance. But was this move the right one for the conference?
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The food and drink selection at the tournament is bare bones adequate, with all major credit cards accepted and long lines rarely, if ever, being an issue. If you've been to a Reno Bighorns game at the arena, you'll know what to expect.
The selections include chicken tenders with fries ($9), a cheeseburger ($7 alone or $9 with fries), garlic cheese bread, cheese fries, garlic fries, Nathan's hot dogs ($6), corn dogs, nachos, pretzels and popcorn ($5). They're edible and reasonably priced by typical stadium standards, and that's about it. Just like at Bighorns games, they greatly lack a signature item that jumps off the menu.
Coca-Cola is the soda family of choice ($5 for a refillable cup), and that includes Coke, Diet Coke, Minute Maid Lemonade, Sprite, Barq's Root Beer and Dr. Pepper, as well as bottles of water ($4) and Powerade ($5). For adults, beer is sold at the tournament ($8 cups of Coors Light or Shock Top), along with cocktails ($9 for a regular and $11 for a premium), wine by the glass, Mike's Hard Lemonade ($8), and 24-ounce aluminum cans, or "bombers," of Bud Light ($10).
If we had to pick one food item, it'd be the garlic cheese bread.
The experience in Reno is what you'd expect for a small conference basketball tournament on a neutral floor: not bad, but not great, either.
The Reno Events Center is built like a lot of other venues of its size, with a glass and steel exterior and an interior comprised of retractable sections of padded seats. Though lacking cup holders, they're all comfortable, with clear views of the court and no obstructions in any of the sections we examined. The seats closest to the court are about 15 feet away from the edge of the hardwood, and the standard seats behind them are low to the ground, but an adequate distance away to watch set plays unfold. Suites are up near the ceiling along the south baseline, with seating for opposing pep bands next to the hoops. Black curtains are drawn at one end of the arena, where two portable HD video boards are hung and used for showing instant replays and in-game stats.
Music at the tournament games is an even mix of pep band tunes and an in-house DJ (the same one who works Bighorns home games). Mascots for the different teams make a point of interacting with fans, but you'll definitely notice some overlap in the song selections for the different pep bands if you stay for enough games. The PA announcer is the same person who announces many Wolf Pack games up the street. In-game promotions and entertainment breaks run the gamut from trike races, free throw contests and dizzy mascot soccer to a "Flex Cam" for fans and cheer and dance routines. We like that each team is allowed to play their own intro video at the start of each game, and are introduced all at once instead of alternating between teams.
The arena's best seats for optimal TV-like viewing are in sections 116 and 117, but fretting over seat preferences is mostly unnecessary, as none of them are obstructed or overly far from the action.
The Reno Events Center lies just east of the city's downtown core of hotel-casinos, near the National Bowling Stadium. It's an area with a decent amount of foot traffic that's fairly safe to walk around in.
Dining options before or after a game are numerous, and depend upon your personal tastes and budget. A five-minute walk down 4th Street will put you at one of our two recommendations in this area: Louis' Basque Corner at 4th and Evans, and the Depot Craft Brewery and Distillery next door. A walk in the other direction will return you to downtown and the numerous dining options both inside and outside the hotel-casinos.
Choices of entertainment vary with the seasons, like kayaking on the Truckee River during the summer and trekking to nearby ski resorts in winter. We suggest hitting up the Nevada Museum of Art at Liberty and Hill Streets, and if you're traveling with kids, we especially recommend the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum on Center Street. A stroll through the Riverwalk District downtown is also a nice bet for shops, restaurants and scenery, while options for day trips include Virginia City and Lake Tahoe.
There is a similar abundance of hotel options in the area. For its combination of location, amenities and price, the Silver Legacy is a solid choice. A slightly pricier option we believe is worthwhile is the Whitney Peak Hotel farther south.
As you'd expect, the fans who made the trek to Reno are the diehards, with passion to spare for their respective teams. But there needs to be more of them to enhance the all-around experience and make a continued neutral site tournament viable.
Attendance is what will ultimately make or break the conference's decision to move its basketball tournament off campus. While ticket sales to this year's tournament were slightly up from its first season in Reno - about 20,000 for the men's games and 12,000 for the women's games in 2016 - the actual attendance was still less than that.
The fans do what's expected of them, and their teams' pep bands are often the most consistent source of noise throughout games, even when not playing music.
Getting to the tournament venue represents only the tiniest of hassles, with several free parking structures within walking distance and a very easy arena layout.
The city's main bus terminal is a kitty-corner across Lake Street from the arena, with a 10-ride pass costing $4, which can take you from downtown to south Reno's Meadowood Mall in 22 minutes. A 15-minute car ride will take you to the region's commercial airport, Reno-Tahoe International.
The city's three main hotel-casinos - the Eldorado, Silver Legacy and Circus Circus - each have a parking structure available for fans, with the latter two being free at all times. We suggest the Silver Legacy's garage, as it's the simplest walk to the arena. Several exits off of Interstate 80 will take you to and from the downtown area, and are not a hassle to navigate at most, if not all, times of the tournament.
Entering games is a simple matter of getting any bags searched, followed by a quick visual inspection by security personnel. We were told that ticketless entry into the tournament is possible.
Once inside, the concourse is plenty wide enough for the tournament's usual crowds. Closed circuit TVs make up for the lack of an open concourse, accessible seating is found at the edge of each club seat area, and the arena's bathrooms are clean and not backed up with lines.
The Big Sky heavily incentivizes visiting fans to purchase all-session passes to the entire tournament, and it's here where the ticket discounts are the best.
Single-session passes for two women's games are $20 in general admission areas (that's most of the arena) and $30 for courtside seats, while single-session pairs of men's games run $30 for general admission and $50 for courtside seats. For all-tournament passes to every women's game, it's just $41 for general admission and $75 for courtside seats. Men's games are similarly discounted for the entire tournament, with $85 general admission seats available as well as $160 courtside seats.
Fans of competing teams should keep a close watch on their e-mail for special deals or even better discounts offered by their athletic departments on select dates and times.
Both the conference and the Reno Events Center staff put a lot of effort into making the arena a truly neutral site. The court itself is fairly new, in great condition, and adorned with a Big Sky logo painted at half-court, rather than a decal logo that players could potentially trip over. Twelve banners - one for each current member of the conference - hang from the sides of the arena.
We like that there are lounge areas of comfortable couches set aside for exclusive use by the tournament's players in between their games. These are located on each baseline, and include complimentary snacks and sports drinks.
Last, but not least, the conference and tournament staff who interacted with us were all professional and courteous, which we always appreciate.
The best of the must-see conference basketball tournaments all have some combination of entertaining basketball with high stakes, a fun host city, and huge crowds of enthusiastic fans eager to travel there. The Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas, and the Missouri Valley Tournament in St. Louis all fit this bill.
The Big Sky has two big handicaps stacked against them in meeting these goals at their tournaments: the league itself doesn't have a famous basketball pedigree, and the teams that comprise the league are spread far and wide across the country. Unless Big Sky basketball gets really good really fast, odds are that they would have a hard time drawing well in most places. Whether or not they can make a neutral site work for more than 20 basketball teams each year will ultimately depend on the passion of Big Sky fans and their desire to travel to see their favorite teams play.
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301 E 4th St
Reno, NV 89512