Western Athletic Conference continues to take baby steps

Jeff Hurd sounded a bit like Dr. Leo Marvin from the movie “What About Bob?” on Wednesday as he discussed the current state of the Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament.

It’s all about baby steps.

“It’s a growing process for us. We’re a new league,” said Hurd, in his second year as WAC commissioner. “We know we have steps to make to get to the point we want to get to.”

The WAC tournament tips off its fifth straight year at Orleans Arena today, and the event has yet to gain a foothold in the crowded college basketball scene along Tropicana Avenue. But with the conference finally on stable ground after being picked apart by realignment, Hurd is hopeful the tournament will start to grow as its new members continue to develop their fan bases.

“We still haven’t drawn to the extent that we would like to,” Hurd said. “Our belief is that the first thing that has to happen is we need to improve our regular-season performance in order to develop deeper and more involved fan interest and get those people to come to here for the tournament. And that would be true whether it’s in Vegas or anywhere else.”

The WAC tournament had an average of 3,518 fans for four sessions during its first year at Orleans Arena in 2011, and 4,372 were in attendance for the title game between Utah State and Boise State. Current Mountain West members Fresno State, San Jose State and UNR also were part of the WAC at the time.

Since then, the conference has undergone a facelift — New Mexico State is the lone holdover from 2011 — and rebuilt itself with a handful of Division I newbies. The attendance numbers reflect the instability as an average of 1,284 fans attended the four sessions last year and 1,518 were there for the title game.

In contrast, the West Coast Conference drew a record crowd of 8,585 for Tuesday’s title game between Brigham Young and Gonzaga.

The biggest obstacle to increasing attendance at the WAC tournament is that its current membership consists of schools with small fan bases from a wide geographic footprint. Grand Canyon averaged 5,399 fans for its 20 home games, No. 2 in the conference behind New Mexico State (6,150). But of the remaining six schools, only Seattle and Utah Valley averaged more than 2,000 fans at home.

Grand Canyon, which is coached by former NBA player Dan Majerle, is ineligible for the WAC and NCAA tournaments until the 2017-18 season as it transitions to Division I.

“That hurts us a little bit, because it is not only a school that draws well during the regular season and has a great deal of interest in their program, but is in close proximity” to Las Vegas, Hurd said.

The WAC has committed to holding its 2016 tournament in Las Vegas, and Hurd confirmed the conference’s board of directors will discuss in May whether to keep the event at Orleans Arena for 2017 or move it to Kansas City, Mo.

The men’s quarterfinals begin at 2 p.m. today with games to follow at 4:30 and 7 p.m. Top-seeded New Mexico State (21-10), the three-time defending tournament champion, earned a bye into Friday’s semifinals.

“After this year and next year, that will give us three solid years here with the same group of schools, and we’ll have a pretty good idea at that point whether we should continue it (in Las Vegas) or not,” Hurd said. “This doesn’t happen overnight where, ‘OK, the tournament’s around, so let’s all hop on an airplane or get in a car or a bus and go wherever it is.’ I believe it can be done, but I also am realistic enough to know that it’s not an easy thing.”

Contact reporter David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ.

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