WAC Tourney a Swish for Reno

Both Wolf Pack teams to play underdog role in conference tournament

3/6/2009 | By: Pat McDonnell  |

Even the most casual basketball fan might say Lawlor Events Center will be pazzerello next week.

That is “a little crazy,” in Italian.

But for Keith Hackett, the University of Nevada, Reno’s associate athletic director for facilities and operations since 2004, it is a regular part of game management at the 11,536-seat arena—even if it means hosting a total of 16 visiting men’s and women’s teams at the same time for the annual Western Athletic Conference tournament. The event opens at 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 10 and is scheduled to conclude before a national television audience at about 9 p.m. Saturday, March 14.

“We plan like we have one game and it happens again 16 different times. It’s a pretty intense five days,” Hackett says. The University and the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority last hosted the WAC tournament in 2005 and 2006, and the conference has also selected the Wolf Pack to be the home team for the postseason event in 2010.

Teams will play four women’s bracket quarterfinals games from noon until approximately 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 11 followed by a quartet of men’s bracket quarterfinals March 12. The Nevada women’s team will play its opening game at 6 p.m. March 11 and the Wolf Pack men’s team will tip off at 6 p.m. March 12. Crews from ESPN television will open broadcasts for the semifinal round Friday, March 13 and both the men’s and women’s championships will air on ESPN2 and ESPNU, respectively.

The event will get more intense for Hackett, the Nevada athletics staff and Wolf Pack fans if there is a repeat of last season’s men’s tourney final in Las Cruces, N.M., in which New Mexico State and Boise State played a three-overtime game won by Boise State. That will also be the case if conference men’s front-runners Nevada and the Utah State Aggies meet in the March 14 championship. In both the men’s and women’s tournament brackets, teams that win the WAC finals will garner an automatic berth into the NCAA championships field.

According to the RSCVA, team members competing in the event will consume more than 4,500 meals in area restaurants and use nearly 1,000 towels in their hotel rooms during the tourney’s five-day run in Reno. Three area hotel-casinos (the Silver Legacy, Eldorado and the Peppermill) are hosting fans supporting teams from the nine competing schools, and the Silver Legacy has scheduled a pep rally for one of the teams it is hosting — the men’s WAC regular-season champion, Utah State.

“Right off the bat, they bought 250 student tickets,” Hackett says of the Utah State partisans. “They’re going to be here en masse.”

A key determining factor in WAC tournament attendance from visiting schools is a team’s proximity to the host school. Another key factor, however, is working wonders for the team from Logan, Utah, nationally ranked with a university-best 24-1 record in February.

“A lot of it is how well the team is playing during the year,” says Michael Thomas, the executive director of marketing for the visitors’ authority. “Utah State and New Mexico State are buying the greatest number of tickets. We did very aggressive outreach to NMSU, as they hosted the previous two tournaments.”

“I remember Utah State bringing fans last time (in 2006),” says Amy Engelbert, manager of the Wolf Pack’s ticket office. “Boise State (whose fans travel well for its nationally ranked football team) only bought 20 tickets and sold the rest of their allotment of 100 to Utah State.”

The 2006 men’s tournament final, won by Nevada 70-63 in overtime against the Aggies, drew 9,436 spectators to Lawlor. They will not say it publicly, but it seems clear that officials involved with the tournament would not mind another Wolf Pack-Aggies matchup in the tourney’s most-anticipated game.

Thomas is also trying to get northern Nevadans to wear blue and decorate their work offices that color on days when the Wolf Pack women’s or men’s team has a tournament game.

“We’re doing it grassroots,” Thomas says. “The RSCVA is reaching out to officials at the chambers of commerce and business organizations. There was a huge amount of excitement in the town when Nevada made it to the Sweet 16 (of the men’s national tournament) in 2004.”

Thomas said the depth of his agency’s local marketing efforts has been greater than in 2005-06. “There’s the carrot of the NCAA tournament, and that is attractive to the on-the-fence fan. We’ve tried to capture that. But sometimes, it’s not so much that you’re a die-hard fan, it is that the tournament is exciting and a great atmosphere.”

Ticket sales and sponsorships help to cover the costs of hosting the tournament — a figure estimated at $1.2 million. The Silver Legacy, Eldorado, Peppermill and Reno-Tahoe International Airport are among the tournament sponsors, Thomas said. As of March 3, ticket sales had reached 3,073 for the 16-game, general all-session package. Students from WAC schools had purchased 473 all-session tickets, Engelbert said.

Basketball aficionados like to refer to the madness of March that figures into the attention of many sports fans during the next four or so weeks. Call it Marzo pazzerello instead, and one still has the right words for the moment.

For ticket information, visit the Nevada Wolf Pack website.


For more news on the University of Nevada, Reno, follow @unevadareno on Twitter.

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