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Official Review by Jason Karp, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Montana State versus Wyoming Border War is an on again-off again series between the men’s basketball teams from Montana State University and the University of Wyoming. For many years the game alternated between Casper, Wyoming and Billings, Montana on an annual basis. After a few years in hiatus, the teams played each other on their home courts in Bozeman, Montana and Laramie, Wyoming during the 2014-15 season. For the 2015-16 season the series returned to Billings’ Rimrock Auto Arena with a return installment back on Wyoming’s home court in Laramie. As a point of clarification, the Montana State University Bobcats are based in Bozeman, 140 miles to the west. Not to be confused with the hometown Montana State University-Billings Yellowjackets - an NCAA Division II school.
The game is marketed as the “Border War” but that seems a little overdramatic. A true border war between Montana and Wyoming would probably involve some sort of natural resource extraction or wildlife issue and certainly not college basketball. This is more of a friendly event between similar land grant universities. The Cowboys, who play in the higher profile Mountain West Conference, have dominated the series in wins and losses against the Big Sky Conference Bobcats, though the games are almost always competitive.
Billings, with a population of 110,000, is Montana’s largest city, and it is a regional shopping and entertainment hub for a massive geographical region encompassing eastern Montana and northern Wyoming. On any given weekend, there are almost as many Wyoming license plates on vehicles scattered around the parking lots of Billings as there are from Montana.
Rimrock Auto Arena is the centerpiece of MetraPark which is the fairgrounds for Yellowstone County. The arena, which can hold up to 12,000 people for concerts, is the largest in Montana. Naming rights were sold to the Rimrock Auto Group in an agreement that will last through 2017.
Most in the region still refer to the building by its original name, METRA, which is an acronym for Montana Entertainment Trade and Recreation Arena. The building is not home to one main tenant, but over the years minor league pro basketball, hockey, and arena football franchises have played here. The arena also hosts a wide variety of events including rock concerts, rodeos, trade shows, monster truck rallies, and high school basketball tournaments. One of Rimrock Auto Arena’s largest annual events is Montana’s all-class state wrestling meet which brings thousands to Billings from all over Montana.
On June 20, 2010, a tornado parked itself right on top of the building and churned the roof off. Fortunately, there wasn’t an event happening inside at the time. Check out this rather dramatic youtube video of the storm (caution rough language).
Ironically, the disaster afforded the opportunity for a much needed renovation. The repaired arena has some improved seating, acoustics, lobby, and concourses, but it’s still pretty much the same somewhat bland multi-purpose building that it was before the tornado.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Concession stands are located around the arena on the main concourse. There are several specialty stands, so it's worth checking them all out before deciding. A personal favorite is the Fuddruckers stand where a burger, fries and 32 oz. Coke is just $10.
Beer is also available at several stands. Several domestic brews are on tap ($5 for a 12 oz. cup). The main concession stands have all the standard fare including popcorn, hot dogs, candy, and soda for reasonable prices.
Billings' NCAA Division I loyalties are split between the Montana State Bobcats, Montana Grizzlies, and Wyoming Cowboys as all three universities have lots of grads, boosters, and fans in the city and surrounding areas. So the basketball game between the Bobcats and Cowboys is a truly neutral court affair, with a good following for both schools.
Montana State is the nominal home team for Border War games in Billings, and their cheerleaders are on hand to pep things up, but the atmosphere is diminished because their band doesn't make the trip. The school song, and music during dead ball situations is piped over the PA system. A local quartet from Billings West High School did a nice job performing the national anthem during the 2015 edition of the event.
The arena is cavernous, but the crowd of 4,206 did a good job of filling most of the lower bowl and generating an atmosphere that the players clearly enjoyed in 2015. The seating along the sidelines is good within the baselines, but the seats in the corners and the ends get to be a long way from the action. Paying the extra $5 for a sideline seat in the lower bowl is definitely worth it.
Rimrock Auto Arena is located just east of downtown Billings amongst oil refineries and other industrial uses. The arena itself is in the middle of the sprawling MetraPark complex. The grounds around the arena are nicely landscaped, but there's not much "neighborhood" beyond the buildings of MetraPark and going anywhere else requires a car trip.
Things improve greatly when traveling west about two miles from the arena. Downtown Billings has been undergoing a bit of renaissance in recent years. The high rise Crown Plaza Hotel (which will become a DoubleTree by Hilton by the end of 2016) in the heart of downtown is the tallest hotel in Montana. Catch some amazing views from the Montana Sky Restaurant at the top.
There are six breweries and two distilleries within walking distance of each other in the informal downtown brewery district. There are also many other nice bars and restaurants to choose from in downtown Billings. A couple of personal favorites are Jake's Steak House and the Rex.
If you're looking for something a little more kid friendly, the Billings Hotel just off I-90 Exit 446 has a water slide. A little farther west at the Shiloh Crossing shopping center there is a huge new Scheels sporting goods store with an indoor ferris wheel. It's a good place to update your officially licensed Bobcat or Cowboy gear before the game.
With Billings being such a regional shopping destination, all the I-90 exits within the city have numerous chain hotels, restaurants, and big box retailers to choose from.
When buying tickets, we were informed that the Wyoming side of the arena was behind the team benches and the Montana State side was opposite. But it ended up that there were some fans of either team scattered throughout both sides. This is not a heated rivalry by any means and fans from both schools interact with each other in a fairly friendly manner in the lobby, concourses, and seating areas.
College basketball in November and December can sometimes feel a little uninspired. Players are still getting in shape, coaches are still tweaking their lineups and rotations, and many fans still have football on the brain. But the Cowboy and Bobcat fans that live in central and eastern Montana, and northern Wyoming very much enjoy the opportunity to see their favorite college basketball team closer to home than their respective campus venues. The fan enthusiasm definitely carries over to the players of both teams who put on a great show.
Rimrock Auto Arena is easy enough to find at the east end of Billings. Look for signs leading to the Metra at Exit 452 off I-90. While crossing the Yellowstone River you'll see the building off to the right. There are three parking lots serving the arena. The lower lot and upper lot are free. Parking spots in the middle lot provide easier walking access, but cost $10. Because of the uneven terrain of the site, you'll have to walk up stairs or ramps from the lower lot and down stairs or ramps from the upper lot. The main entrance and ticket booths are on the northwest front of the building and the routes from all the parking areas to the building are handicapped accessible. Getting to the parking lots is no problem, but there is a bit of a wait to get out. There can be significant delays if the crowd is larger.
The arena is isolated from the rest of the city by the fairgrounds, the Yellowstone River, and some wide and busy highways. The only viable mode to get there is motor vehicle. Walking and biking would be difficult and unpleasant, and there isn't a practical public transit option.
Inside the arena, the concourses are wide and easy to navigate, and the staff is very helpful in guiding fans to their seats. Restrooms are clean and functional and the basketball crowd doesn't cause any long lines.
Ticket prices range from $10-$50. The $15 seats along the sidelines in the lower bowl are the best deal. The $50 seats are right along the court, as close to the action as the players on the bench. Concession prices are more than reasonable, and parking is free! All-in-all the price to entertainment value for the Border War is tough to beat.
A bonus point for Billings' most distinctive geological feature, the rimrocks. The sandstone cliffs form a solid boundary along the city's north side. Take a drive to the top of the rims for some great views of downtown and the surrounding plains and mountains. A sunrise or sunset view is especially beautiful.
A bonus point for wide open spaces. Billings is a large city in the middle of one of the United States' most sparsely populated regions. The windswept plains are stunning to drive through during any season.
A bonus point for the fans who come to Billings to watch their favorite college team from far and wide because a drive of over 100 miles in this part of the country is no big deal.
Rimrock Auto Arena has brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to Billings to spend millions of dollars since 1975. This huge regional asset was almost completely destroyed by the tornado in 2010, but it has made a triumphant return and it will continue to serve the people of Montana and Northern Wyoming for many years to come. When in Billings take in a game or concert, get some shopping done, and check out a brewery or two. There's something for everyone.
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2701 1st Ave N Rd
Billings, MT 59102
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27 N 27th St
Billings, MT 59101