In its heyday, the Mountain West Conference regularly placed multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament, and cemented itself as the finest of the non-power basketball conferences. And nowhere was this distinction more apparent than at the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas, where teams like BYU, Utah, New Mexico and San Diego State regularly brought thousands of fans apiece to witness an all-out fight for league supremacy.
But times change, and with the departure of the Cougars, Utes and Horned Frogs of TCU in 2011 and ‘12, the Mountain West’s strength and prestige took a big hit. While the annual gathering at the Thomas & Mack Center can still occasionally bring in big crowds, it’s clear the conference is struggling to regain its old form. How does the experience in Las Vegas rate by us?
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".
The concession stands - which benefitted from the Thomas & Mack Center's recent renovations - are perhaps the strongest addition to the tournament. They accept credit cards, and feature a wide variety of food and drink selections at decent prices, which are all (with one glaring exception) delivered in a timely manner.
The stands open to fans at this year's tournament were as follows: the Mack Attack, offering various types and sizes of hot dogs, pretzels, chili cheese Fritos, ($6-$11) and soups ($4 or $6); the 3-Point Grill, with a Philly steak sandwich, chicken fingers, bratwurst, Italian smoked sausage (all with fries, $8-$10), French fries, "Heart Attack" fries and peanuts ($4-$5); a generic stand with Nathan's hot dogs, a kid's meal (hot dog, candy and a small soda), popcorn, nachos, Gummi Bears, Sour Worms and Twizzlers ($3-$6); a Dairy Queen stand with a menu including many of the items you'd expect at a standard DQ, like shakes, malts, frappes, iced coffee drinks, cones, sundaes, bowls and Blizzards ($4-$9); Pizza & Brew, with personal cheese or pepperoni pizzas ($8 or $9), pizza sticks ($6), and something called "blings" ($5); and the Back Court Grill, with a chicken breast sandwich ($9, with fries), hamburger ($5) and several items from other stands. The Dairy Queen stand is pretty much the only one where long lines are a problem, as there are usually only two or three people working there, and they make everything to order.
Drinks are similarly overwhelming in choice and high in quality. Sodas are of the fountain variety ($4 for a medium and $5 for a large), and the Coca-Cola family (Coke, Diet Coke, Barq's Root Beer, Sprite, Minute Maid Lemonade, Orange Fanta and Dr. Pepper), while other options include bottled water, Powerade, and energy drinks ($4-$5). Beer selections are especially varied, and are generally separated into "light" (Bud Light, Miller Light, Coors Light, $8) and "premium" choices (craft options that frequently change and are too numerous to attempt to list, $9), and cocktails, mixed drinks and wine by the glass are also available ($11).
We're fans of value combos here, so any of the 3-Point Grill or Back Court Grill selections that come with fries are good bets (particularly the bratwurst). Finally, we noticed a couple of the expanded bar areas on the concourse serving beer in unusual cups with magnets on the bottom (to facilitate quicker bottom-up filling) for $10 - avoid these to save an extra bit of money.
While not as filled up as it was at its height, the Mountain West Tournament still represents a solidly fun gathering of thousands of fans to watch non-power conference basketball.
The Thomas & Mack Center is a two-tiered arena that can accommodate up to 17,923 fans for basketball games, though this number is slightly lower for the tournament because of the courtside areas set aside for members of the media. Every seat was recently replaced as part of a $72.5 million series of renovations, with plastic folding seats and cup holders in every row. Sightlines throughout the lower bowl are terrific, and no obstructions were found in our search. The upper level is equally seated, and not significantly removed from the action, although viewing the arena's video and stat boards from up there can cause slight strain on the eyes. The replays are of decent quality, and the new sound system is especially strong. Suites are located at the top of the lower bowl all around the arena. Of note is the tournament's playing surface, which was purchased by the Mountain West after it was used for three games at the 2012 NCAA Women's Final Four in Denver.
A DJ takes song requests from fans via Twitter throughout the tournament, resulting in a mix of fun, classic crowd pleasers and music from whichever two pep bands happen to be playing during a game. The PA announcer is professional and unobtrusive, while in-game entertainment runs the gamut from shooting contests to cheer and dance teams and a "karaoke cam" and similar games on the video board. The league allows each competing team to play their own intro videos before each game, and the conference's own intro video that counts down the final 30 seconds to tip-off is appropriately amped up. Even the occasional Las Vegas show performer drops by for a national anthem performance or a quick halftime set (this year's title game featured the Tenors of Rock from Harrah's Las Vegas).
The VIP seats in section 106 will give you the prime center court view, but we think anywhere in the lower bowl will afford you a similarly great viewing experience for less money. With the tournament in its current state, there's really no reason to sit in the upper bowl if you can find closer seats.
The Thomas & Mack Center is at the confluence of many key areas of Las Vegas: the Strip to the west, McCarran International Airport to the south, and the rest of the UNLV campus to the north and east.
The Las Vegas Strip, of course, has some of the finest dining options in the world, and there really is something for everyone to be found depending on your personal tastes. More often than not, however, they're also expensive, which is why we're going in a different direction for our recommendations. Roberto's Taco Shop is a fast, casual Mexican chain with several locations throughout the area, including one in a shopping center a half-mile from the arena at the corner of Harmon Avenue and Paradise Road. For a more traditional sit-down restaurant best enjoyed with friends, we also like Firefly Tapas Kitchen and Bar (further north on Paradise), about two miles from the arena.
The Strip gets the most attention as a tourist attraction, but a couple of places just far enough away from that area that we enjoy are the National Atomic Testing Museum off of Flamingo Road and Topgolf off of Koval Lane. Broadening out, we also suggest checking out the Mob Museum on Stewart Avenue, the Neon Museum on North Las Vegas Boulevard, and a potential day trip to Red Rock Canyon or the Hoover Dam.
For a budget-conscious tournament-goer, the Best Western McCarran Inn is a decent lodging choice located a supremely walkable distance from the arena. If you're able to spend more, the Hard Rock is also roughly the same distance away. But really, this is Las Vegas - there are hotels everywhere.
Though it's rare to see the arena's upper deck filled for tournament action lately, the fans who do attend the Mountain West Tournament still make for an above-average spectating experience. They lack that certain special magic that used to come with its massive crowds of old, and the seasoned teams they would inevitably follow in droves to support.
Attendance for this year's men's games ranged between 5,500 and 6,500 for each game, a ways down from last year's average of around 8,000 per game. This can best be attributed to the teams of the conference's two best-traveling fan bases - New Mexico and San Diego State - having down years and getting eliminated in the early rounds. Even UNLV - the team whose home court the tournament is played on - was nowhere to be found after the first day.
Not surprisingly, these fan bases are also the ones who make the most noise and are the most engaged. Their presence makes a noticeable difference for the whole tournament experience, and how they fare, so fares the tournament.
Other than the often-thick traffic that accompanies similar big events in Las Vegas, the Mountain West Tournament offers fans an easily accessible experience.
For public transportation, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada has several bus routes that can take fans to the arena, with the Tropicana at Swenson East stop on the 201 line being the closest. A 3-day pass for various routes in and around the city can be purchased either from select ticket machines or the RTC's mobile app for $20. That particular line can take you from the closest stop on the strip to Swenson East in less than ten minutes. McCarran International Airport is a mere five minutes by car.
Parking close to the tournament in your own car is, in a word, dicey. A single-day parking pass next to the arena will set you back $20, while one for the whole tournament is $75, and all of these egress lanes get backed up as they exit onto Tropicana Avenue or Swenson Street heading north after a game. A much better option, if you don't mind a little legwork, is parking at the Hard Rock's free garage and walking the 15-or-so minutes (just under a mile) to the arena.
The main entrance off of Swenson was the only one letting people in and out, from what we could see, and that's all that was really needed. A quick, casual check of any bags was all we experienced, and we were told that ticketless entry is an option. One heads-up in this area is that no re-entry is allowed after your ticket is scanned.
Moving around inside the arena is easy and comfortable for all but the most jam-packed events. Though not open to the concourse, closed-circuit TVs at concession stands keep fans up to date, and the redesigned bathrooms are usually line-free and tidy. Accessible seats are available by request through a participating school's ticket office in sections 101, 104, 105, 111, 112, 117, and 122 in the lower bowl, and sections 225 through 228 in the upper bowl. Accessible parking spots are available in four combined rows right in front of the arena.
This is the one area where the tournament truly falters, as its current price point doesn't seem fully justified when compared to the basketball experience it used to offer.
Single-session tickets for the women's games (meaning two first round, quarterfinal or semifinal games or the women's title game) are $20 each, and seating is general admission. Men's games differ depending on the level you sit in. In the upper level, it's $30 for a reserved seat or $40 for a reserved center court seat for the three first round games on Wednesday, and $35 or $45 for those same respective seats during the remaining sessions. In the lower bowl, it's $45 for single-session tickets to the first round games (with women's semifinal access the same evening), $50 for the afternoon or evening quarterfinal sessions on Thursday, $60 for the two semifinal games on Friday, and back to $50 for the men's title game on Saturday afternoon. End zone seats behind the baselines in the lower bowl are $40 for the first round games, $45 for either of the two quarterfinal sessions, and $50 for the semifinal session or the championship game.
Single-session tickets for student fans are $15 for each women's session or upper bowl seats for the men's first round games, $20 for lower bowl seats to those same games, $25 for upper bowl seats to the men's semifinals and title game, and $30 for lower bowl seats to those same games.
All-session tickets are decidedly more simple: $220 for reserved end zone lower bowl seats to all 20 games, $250 for prime lower bowl seats to all 20 games, and two options for VIP seats closest to the court with options for meals in the hospitality suite ($725) and without meals ($475). Each all-session ticket packet - VIP or not - includes a complimentary free program, while the two VIP packages also include a parking pass.
Speaking of which, a parking pass by itself will run you $20 a day or $75 for the whole tournament, which we find pretty steep. A good food entrée and drink, like a bratwurst with fries and a soda, will run you $14, though.
We liked seeing the conference fill up a section of the arena with underprivileged kids at the women's championship game. The eleven banners at the top of the arena at least lend the appearance that the tournament is on a truly neutral floor (which we think is a slightly overblown complaint, anyway).
A guest assistance number for texting any questions or complaints is prominently featured just below the video board at all times. Previous tournaments have gone so far as to include pyrotechnics before the men's championship game, but we were disappointed to find that wasn't the case this year.
The view of the Strip at night when you step out of the main entrance to the arena is also quite lovely. Lastly, the Thomas & Mack Center staff were all courteous and professional to us.
Any chance the Mountain West has of getting its swagger back will depend on three things happening in the very near future. First, the league's old guard must return to its former excellence. Second, a crop of newcomers must leave their own distinct mark on the still-young conference. Finally, fans of every team in the Mountain West must do their part to fill up the fabled Las Vegas arena every March once more. Instead of one or two teams bringing thousands of fans to cheer for them, it needs to be five or more teams. As the league continues the grueling process of building itself back up, so too, we suspect, will the crowds at the Mountain West Tournament.
The Mountain West Conference has been holding its basketball tournament at Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas since 2007, and will continue holding it there through at least the 2016 season. The conference also held the tournament there from the conference’s inception in 1999 through 2003 before it temporarily moved to the Pepsi Center in Denver. Thomas and Mack is typically the home of the UNLV men’s basketball team during the season, but it is almost impossible to tell that during the tournament.
In 2012-13, the Mountain West had nine basketball members. They will be expanding to eleven members moving forward. Those schools are: Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, Nevada-Reno, UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State and Wyoming. San Jose State and Utah State will be the tenth and eleventh schools in the conference. Hawaii is a football only member. BYU, TCU, and Utah are all former Mountain West members.
Thomas and Mack was first opened in 1983, and has a basketball capacity of 18,776. 18,500 attended the 2013 MW Championship game. In addition to UNLV and MW basketball, the facility has also been host to the 2007 NBA All Star Game, an Arena Football League team, Big West Conference and WAC basketball tournaments in the 1990s, a Lakers playoff game in 1992 due to the LA Riots, as well as various wrestling and boxing matches and concerts.
Each March since 2007, the Mountain West Conference has held its postseason tournament at the Thomas and Mack Center, with the winner earning a berth to the NCAA Tournament.
The Thomas and Mack Center is tucked away by itself, but it is still just a few miles off of the Las Vegas Strip, and is home to one of the best shows in Las Vegas: The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.
The league did move the conference tournament to the Pepsi Center in Denver from 2004-06, but the results were poor with poor attendance numbers. The tournament is scheduled to remain at the Thomas and Mack through 2016.
The Thomas and Mack opened up in 1983 and holds 18,776 and there have been multiple upgrades in that time. Most notably a new four-sided video screen which was installed in 2008.
The primary use is for the men’s and women’s UNLV basketball teams. Other events that the arena has held include being the home of Team USA basketball for its training and summer camps, the Utah Jazz briefly called the Thomas and Mack home during the 1980s, the 2007 NBA All-Star game, the Mountain West men’s and women’s conference tournament, Arena Football is making its comeback in 2015 and it’s also home to some of the biggest rodeo events in the country.
3824 Paradise Rd
Las Vegas, NV 89119