DENVER c A quick glance around the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night was all that was needed to understand why the Mountain West Conference has decided to say, “Viva Las Vegas.” During the men’s basketball tournament play-in game that featured Colorado State, nearly 16,000 of the arena’s 19,555 seats were empty.
This season’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, which conclude Saturday, will end an unsuccessful three-year run at the Pepsi Center. Before the start of the 2005-06 season, the conference’s board of directors decided to move the tournament back to the Thomas & Mack Center/Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas — the site from 2000 to 2003. The league has a four-year deal with Las Vegas Events that could be extended to six. “I think everybody probably has mixed emotions,” Colorado State coach Dale Layer said. “As a coach, you probably like a site that’s neutral, and Pepsi Center is certainly neutral and a world-class arena and there’s a lot of good things about it from a fan’s perspective. But we’re in the entertainment business, and that’s an important factor.” The move to Denver was made in part because some coaches had complained about having to play the tournament on the home floor of one of their conference rivals — UNLV. But the tournament did not catch on in Denver. Last year, the average attendance at MWC men’s basketball tournament games was 8,974. In 2003, the tournament’s last year in Las Vegas, the average attendance was 13,483. Part of the reason for the lack of success in Denver was the inability of the conference schools within a reasonable driving distance of the arena to draw fans. Fans of those schools have not flocked to the Pepsi Center in part because their teams haven’t been that good. The men’s teams at Colorado State and Wyoming have been down, and Air Force, while having top-three seeds in 2004 and 2005, lost in the first round of those tournaments. Last year, the men’s and women’s teams from Air Force, Colorado State and Wyoming lost in the first round. “If one of the Front Range schools would have been a little better during this era, the (attendance) numbers might have been different,” Wyoming coach Steve McClain said. Poor timing also played a role in the tournament’s failure in Denver. In 2004, the Pepsi Center hosted first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games the week after the MWC tournaments. Conference commissioner Craig Thompson said he thought “if a Denverite had $150 in his or her pocket, they would buy that NCAA ticket,” instead of a ticket to the MWC tournament. Finally, there is the lure of Las Vegas, a true destination city. “I do know our fans love to go to Vegas,” McClain said. “And that’s where we’re going, and I know everybody will be excited to go there next year.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0365 or firstname.lastname@example.org MWC MEN’S GLANCE Quarterfinals Today’s games San Diego State vs. Colorado State, noon UNL V vs. New Mexico, 2:30 p.m. Air Force vs. Wyoming, 7 p.m. BYU vs. Utah, 10 p.m. Friday’s semifinals San Diego State-Colorado State winner vs. UNL V-New Mexico winner, 7 p.m. Air Force-Wyoming winner vs. BYU-Utah winner, 9:30 p.m. Saturday’s championship Semifinal winners, 8 p.m.