Mountain West’s Vegas future may include move to Las Vegas Strip

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Commissioner Gloria Nevarez says her league is happy at the Thomas & Mack Center but that could change in the near future.

LAS VEGAS — It’s become a rite of spring, like the flowers coming into bloom and college kids taking off for adventures on their break from their studies.

Basketball coaches in the Mountain West Conference want to know when their postseason tournament will be played on a neutral floor.

Actually, the kvetching goes back before there even was a Mountain West. When the WAC was playing at the Thomas & Mack Center, UNLV’s home court, Rick Majerus would annually get on his soap box and stump for neutrality.

And when the Mountain West was formed in 1999, it actually tried to go the neutral court route, moving its tournament to Denver for three years. But it proved unsuccessful because nobody went to the games and it was a financial disaster.

So back to Vegas the tourney went. Back to the Thomas & Mack Center. T-Mobile Arena, which seats 18,000 for basketball, wouldn’t open until 2016 and when it did, the Pac-12 had dibs, moving from across the street and the MGM Grand Garden.

Never mind that UNLV has had marginal success playing in its own building, having won just three times, the last coming in 2008. Yes, they change the floor to reflect a neutral environment. Yes, UNLV’s championship banners come down and are replaced with those representing San Jose State and Air Force. 

But the coaches still lobby for a move to another site in Las Vegas. Never mind the Runnin’ Rebels haven’ made it past the quarterfinals going on 10 years now. They have no issue with Vegas in and of itself. The Mountain West is one of five conferences that holds its postseason tournament here. So no one is saying move back to Denver or some other locale.

And they may eventually get their wish.

The Mountain West is looking at options for future tournaments. Its contract with the Thomas & Mack was up after Saturday’s championship game. But they’ve already re-upped for 2025 on a one-year deal, and beyond that, perhaps entertain a move west up Tropicana Avenue, maybe to T-Mobile, maybe to the Grand Garden. Maybe even at some point to the proposed A’s domed stadium at the Tropicana Hotel site.

San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher told the San Diego Union-Tribune last week, “Obviously, a neural site would be better, even if it’s still in Vegas.”

Thursday, the old barn was rockin’ with an afternoon session that had 8,960 show up to see both games go to overtime with Utah State outlasting Fresno State and Dutcher’s Aztecs beating UNLV. And you didn’t even have to listen closely to know San Diego State had more fans than UNLV did. It actually sounded more like Viejas Arena. So if anyone had a home-court edge, it was SDSU. 

But Ultimately, this will be a financial decision, not a fairness one. Las Vegas Events pays the conference $300,000 annually to be here along with helping with hotel rooms and other incentives. The lease with the T&M is reportedly very friendly toward the Mountain West though I don’t know the exact numbers. A move to T-Mobile or the MGM would likely cost more in terms of rent. 

The Thomas & Mack offers something the other sites don’t, that being a place for teams to practice before their games. The Mendenhall Center, UNLV’s practice facility, is a 3-point shot from the T&M and that convenience should not be understated. It means not having to find a high school gym to practice.

Then there’s the potential competition from other conferences for using T-Mobile. The Big 12, which will have five schools from the West next year (BYU, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State) has explored the possibility of replacing the Pac-12, which will be finished following Saturday’s championship game, at T-Mobile. The Big Ten, which will have four West Coast teams (USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington) net season, may want to give Las Vegas a whirl instead of Chicago or Indianapolis or Minneapolis. Both conferences could easily afford the rent for T-Mobile and could be in play to have their journeys here come 2026.

So if you’re Gloria Nevarez, the current Mountain West commissioner, you may want to move down the street, but it may not be so easy. It might be financially prudent to stay put at the Thomas & Mack and put up with the bitching and moaning from the coaches. Who’s to say that she’d be able to negotiate a higher payout from Las Vegas Events and a financially equitable lease agreement from T-Mobile?

“Certainly the economics would change,” Nevarez said Thursday when asked what a move from the Thomas & Mack would mean for the Mountain West. “It wouldn’t be prohibitive but it would be impactful.

“But we’re very happy to be at the Thomas & Mack. It fits our needs and we have a great relationship with them. They know how to host a tournament.”

A move to the Strip would likely be good for the visitors from the Mountain West schools though ticket prices would likely increase and UNLV fans probably wouldn’t be thrilled to pay $40 to park at the New York-New York garage, as was the case for those attending the Pac-12 tournament this week. The out-of-town visitors can walk to T-Mobile or the MGM not to mention being close to the myriad dining and entertainment options near the arena, which the Thomas & Mack doesn’t offer. Oh, and the T&M charges $20 to park.

For me, if I was the Mountain West and was seeking true neutrality in Vegas, I would go to either the Grand Garden or Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay. Both are considerably smaller than the Thomas & Mack with capacity at either hovering around 11,000. Both are located on the Strip. And as we have seen with the Aces in the WNBA, MUA can rock when it’s filled. 

Neither facility is fancy. Certainly not to the extent T-Mobile is. Or even the Thomas & Mack for that matter. But having your tournament at reduced capacity would generate a better atmosphere and look better on television compared to the thousands of empty seats we see annually in the T&M. 

It has been a remarkable year for Nevarez and her league. The Mountain West is expected to receive five bids to the NCAA men’s tournament on Sunday, perhaps a sixth. UNLV has dominated women’s basketball, having won the conference regular season and postseason tournament three straight years. Perhaps the 30-2 Lady Rebels will be treated kindly by the NCAA women’s selection committee Sunday. There was a three-way tie at the top for football between Boise State, UNLV and San Jose State and the Mountain West had seven teams participate in bowl games.

“We knew it was going to be good,” she said of men’s basketball this season. “We lost a lot of talent but our schools did a great job of signing players and it has been a tremendous year.”

Nevarez’s challenge is to build on those successes. She has proven capable so far, having navigated the league through the maelstrom of conference realignment and adding Oregon State and Washington State to the league’s football family.

But a big decision is looming. How will she handle the neutrality issues for her basketball tournaments? They can move a mile away from their current home yet stay in the neighborhood. Or they can stay put and continue with life as they know it along with the complaints from the coaches that will come with it.