Are Pre-Determined Tournament Sites in the Big Sky’s Future?

By JIM O’DAY

The City of Missoula is benefitting this week by hosting both the men’s and women’s Big Sky Conference Basketball Tournaments.  The question, lingers, however, as to whether or not this format is economically feasible, and should it continue in its present form, especially after the league expanded its tournament field this year to include seven schools in each division.

Currently, the regular-season champion is the host school for the tournament.  While this is great news for the home team and community, it causes significant problems for those traveling from great distances. Not only is airfare expensive and flight seating availability scarce when a tourney site isn’t determined until the last minute, but the Big Sky Conference boundaries from one end to the other extend more than any other conference in America – and most of the cities where these schools are located aren’t major airport hubs.

In the men’s bracket, for example, only Montana State/Bozeman is less than 200 driving miles to Missoula, with the next closest school being Weber State/Ogden, Utah (490 miles away from the Garden City).  The next closest, Southern Utah/Cedar City, is 637 miles away, and this year both SUU and Northern Colorado/Greeley (644),  opted to travel their men’s team via bus rather than air to save costs and the convenience of leaving early if need be.  The remaining schools –  North Dakota/Grand Forks (797) and Northern Arizona/Flagstaff (816) were able to secure plane reservations, but with the tourney site not determined until last Saturday afternoon, their costs were not very attractive.

As for the women, both Montana State and Eastern Washington/Cheney (173) are a reasonable driving distance from Missoula, as is Idaho State/Pocatello (287).

Financial hosting obligations for the women’s tourney are different than the men, and with The University of Montana hosting and large crowds expected, along with the relative close proximity of many of the teams participating, this year’s women’s tourney could show a profit. In an effort to help with high costs, corporate sponsors are sought by the conference each year to help offset some expenses.  Gate revenues are also critical.  Even then there are no guarantees that the men’s tourney can be profitable – and hopefully, not a financial burden for the homeschool.

Taking all of this into account, and with extra challenges by adding two more teams into the conference equation this year (North Dakota and Southern Utah), it may be time for the Big Sky Conference to join other Division I leagues and find a pre-determined site.  For example, the remaining four western NCAA Division I basketball conferences – Pac 12, Mountain West, West Coast and WAC – have moved their post-season tourneys to Las Vegas. The “destination” location has been popular with fans, and allows for teams and their entourages to make early plans to attend all the games.  With the current set-up by the BSC, it is hard for many fans to follow their favorite teams with such short notice.

This, however, may not necessarily be much of a cost saver – but it could be the most equitable solution, and probably overall the most popular.  If the current 7-team format is followed, it would mean that not all 11 teams would advance into the conference tourney.  For those who don’t qualify until the last week or so, a trip to a place such as Las Vegas could be difficult and expensive.  If the Big Sky followed the lead of other conferences, and allowed all regular-season teams in both the men’s and women’s bracket to participate, it would allow for some cost savings as a school could make travel arrangements earlier. It would probably also favor many fans as they could make reservations early in the year.

Either way, there are challenging discussions ahead for the Big Sky Conference.  I’m sure this topic is being debated again this weekend in Dahlberg Arena by school administrators and others, as it will at the Big Sky Conference spring meetings. I’m not sure there are any clear-cut answers, but it’s probably time to look at it very closely again.  Such an arrangement might also be helpful in attracting more television coverage.  This year, for the first time in many years, neither the men’s nor the women’s BSC semifinals are being televised.  In addition, the women’s championship game Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. won’t be on TV, while the men’s title contest at 7 p.m. will be on ESPNU – a platform not available to many households across Montana. For those interested, though, all the games are available via streaming at www.BigSkyTV.org.

In the meantime, let’s get out and support our Griz and Lady Griz!!!!

************** Do you have questions for Jim?  Use this Contact Us form and we’ll forward your questions to him for possible inclusion in future blogs.  Like this blog?  Chances are you’ll like these other Jim O’Day blogs:  What the Financial Numbers mean for UM/MSU Athletics.  Hiring/Retaining College Coaches is Becoming ToughFormer UM Coaches/Missoula Stars Making it Big in College FootballWhy I chose to Make It Missoula, The Ups & Downs of Being a Griz Fan, Once a Griz, Always a Griz.

Jim O’Day was Director of Athletics at the University of Montana from 2005-2012. Prior to that, he served as the Assistant Director of the Grizzly Athletic Association and later as the Director of Development  for Intercollegiate Athletics at UM. Prior to returning to his alma mater in 1998, O’Day was the owner and publisher of the family-owned Western Breeze newspaper in Cut Bank, Montana. Jim currently works for The Farran Group, a real estate development/ investment firm based in Missoula, MT.  In addition, Jim serves as a consultant for Epio Solutions out of Seattle, a sports based agency primarily focused on monitoring social media platforms for various colleges and universities. Jim and his wife Kathy have three sons: Chris, Kevin and Brian.  Chris and Kevin are graduates of The University of Montana, while Brian is currently a senior atUM.