The Pac-12 men's basketball tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena is one of five being held this week in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS — Larry Scott likes to use the word buzz when talking about the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament that tipped off Wednesday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“I think you can feel in your gut if there’s a buzz about something and if it’s heading in the right direction or not,” said the Pac-12 commissioner. “I think this has got a lot of potential to be something special.”
After 11 seasons in Los Angeles and a steady decline in attendance at the cavernous 19,060-seat Staples Center, Scott downsized to the 13,151-seat Garden Arena in hopes of injecting life into a tournament that had become stale.
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“It’s important to create the right atmosphere and give the right look for television,” he said weeks ago. “I was really disappointed with the turnout in L.A.”
The men’s conference tournament attendance peaked in 2007 at just under 17,000 per session, including 18,259 for the championship game.
Last year, the title game drew an announced crowd of 11,197, the lowest in the history of the tournament.
But with the tournament locked into a three-year deal with MGM and the Garden Arena, optimism is running high. UCLA coach Ben Howland believes Las Vegas and the new venue could do for the Pac-12 men’s tournament what New York and Madison Square Garden did for the Big East Tournament.
“This ticket for the Pac-12 tournament will be one of the hardest tickets to get in three years,” he said. “I guarantee it. That city and our tournament, it’s a perfect marriage.”
During his time with the Women’s Tennis Association, Scott worked with tennis great Andre Agassi, Las Vegas’ unofficial ambassador, on several tennis ventures in the city.
And when the Pac-12 needed a new home for its men’s basketball tournament, Scott knew Las Vegas was a natural fit.
The Pac-12 had a connection with the city because of the Las Vegas Bowl football game.
“As we went through the bidding process, I talked to our fans and people would light up as you talked about Las Vegas,” Scott said. “I had a sense that this might create the most excitement.”
Or as California coach Mike Montgomery put it: “People from other parts of the league didn’t look at L.A. as being anything special. Maybe people from Corvallis and Pullman will want to take a vacation for 3-4 days and sit in the sun by the pool.”
Las Vegas has a lot to offer, including, yes, gambling. The NCAA has shied away from Sin City due to its connections with gaming, but the conferences don’t fall under NCAA jurisdiction.
Las Vegas has been the home for the West Coast Conference tournaments, which is negotiating to keep its men’s and women’s events at 7,471-seat Orleans Arena.
Attendance has also been robust for the Mountain West Conference men’s and women’s tournaments. Those events are this week at the Thomas & Mack Center, where UNLV plays.
The city is also hosting the Western Athletic Conference men’s and women’s tournaments this week.
“Basketball has become such a big deal in Vegas from (AAU) summer basketball to USA basketball to these conference tournaments now,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. “It’s incredible what they’ve done. That says a lot about Vegas and the people that have worked really hard to attract these great teams and these great tournaments.”
Added Keith Kizer, Nevada Athletic Commission executive director: “Being aligned with the Pac-12, which has perhaps the most prestigious universities on the West Coast, just makes sense. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”
Opened in 1993 and best known for hosting concerts, this is the Garden Arena’s first major foray into basketball. Seemingly, things went off without a hitch Wednesday.
Every team is staying in the hotel. For players it’s a short walk from their rooms, through the casino, past the food court and to the arena, where meeting rooms serve as locker rooms.
Ushers in tuxedos greeted fans. The cast from Rock of Ages performed at halftime. The R&B group Boyz II Men is singing the national anthem Friday.
“It feels like you’re giving fans a show,” TV analyst Bill Walton said.
Tickets for some sessions were sold at 80 percent of capacity, according to early reports from the Pac-12.
Utah sold its 1,500 allotment. Oregon State coach Craig Robinson reported the Beavers sold more tickets this year than the past three years combined.
Over the next few days, Scott wants to see fans in the stands.
“By Saturday when we get to the final game, we’ll have a pretty good feel for how things are going,” he said. “We’ll look at the (attendance) numbers. But we’ll also get feedback from the coaches, administrators and the student-athletes and just my own gut to just how it’s going.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @percyallen