The Pac-12 Tournament is doing so well that it added nine heavyweight advertisers this year: Apple, Adidas, Norelco, Cooper Tires, Eli Lilly, TurboTax, Dollar Shave Club, Kia and SoFi.
The league sold out its TV advertising inventory.
It didn’t stop there. In addition to New York Life as the week’s presenting sponsor, the Pac-12 enlisted AT&T, Bank of the West, GEICO and Chevron to throw money into a growing pot as financial partners.
The Rose Bowl has been and will probably always be the league’s iconic venue, but in three years, the MGM Grand Garden Arena has moved into second place.
Who doesn’t want to be part of it?
As recently as 2012, the Pac-12 Tournament was played at the ginormous Staples Center, a cookie-cutter NBA arena noted for empty seats and a sterile atmosphere stuck in the middle of Los Angeles’ traffic jungle. An overpriced parking place was valued almost as much as a ticket.
Parking is free at the MGM Grand. The energy-and-fun-quotient is such that it sometimes makes you forget that a draft beer costs as much as $13 and that ticket prices are often preceded by the dreaded G word: gouge.
But its appeal in Tucson is undeniable; if you live in Southern Arizona, you move the envy-needle by telling friends you are spending the week at the MGM Grand and watching the Cats play.
The MGM Grand is 414 miles from Tucson and 420 miles from Salt Lake City, the league’s two most basketball-savvy and basketball-crazy franchises. The success of the Wildcats and Utes ensures that seats will be sold and advertisers will get in line to be part of it.
Neither USC nor UCLA has bought in. When the Bruins reached the 2013 and 2014 championship games, you could almost count the powder blue-clad Bruins fans by hand.
Few in Los Angeles complained when the tournament moved 270 miles to Las Vegas. Staples Center didn’t do much more than shrug. This week, for example, Staples Center has four NBA games (including a Saturday doubleheader) and an NHL game on days that used to be rented by the Pac-12.
Part of the reason it works at the MGM Grand is because capacity is about 12,800, tickets are in demand and it is a place to see and be seen. It is a far more desirable venue than UNLV’s nearby Thomas and Mack Arena, which seats 18,500 for basketball during the simultaneous Mountain West Conference tournament.
A year ago, San Diego State’s run to the MWC title was played before crowds of 8,655, 9,199 and 10,002.
This year’s Pac-12 Tournament was sold out weeks ago.
But it could get even get better. Or worse.
The league’s contract with the MGM Grand Arena expires this year, and the timing is either a blessing or a curse. The 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena, which is also an MGM property, is across the Las Vegas Strip adjacent to the New York-New York hotel.
It is now on Commissioner Larry Scott’s tennis-playing shoulders to decide whether to ditch the MGM Grand and become a March tenant at the $375 million T-Mobile high-roll.
It is a risky decision. The choice awaiting the Pac-12 Tournament is in some ways like Oregon’s basketball team moving from beloved (if ancient) Mac Court to the Nike-inspired Matthew Knight Arena. The Ducks averaged just 7,467 per game this season. Capacity: 12,364. The buzz is gone.
And the Ducks won the league championship.
The other risk is, what happens in a year that Arizona gets bounced from the tournament in Round 1? Although tickets had already been sold, the MGM Grand was probably only half full when Oregon and UCLA played for the 2013 title.
It is 862 miles from Eugene, Oregon, to Las Vegas.
There are no direct flights available from Eugene to Las Vegas except for a Monday flight on off-brand Allegiant Airlines. Even if the Ducks become a steady top- 10-type program, it’s difficult to imagine more than 1,000 UO fans in Las Vegas.
The argument for staying at the MGM Grand is a strong one.
Thousands of fans stay in the casino after games, making it a four-day party. If it moves across the street, those fans are apt to scatter over the Las Vegas Strip. Some UA fans lodge at the MGM Grand and don’t attend a game. They watch in the sports book, or in their rooms, and never see the sunshine.
Much of that element would be lost with a move to the T-Mobile Arena.
Nevertheless, UA coach Sean Miller said Monday that not moving would be to “risk being the B game.’’
“The conference cares a lot about being first class,” he said. “It’s an incredible stage. If we choose not to move, then somebody else is going to do that.”
The appeal of the Pac-12 Tournament might be best known to those Tucsonans who attempt to fly to Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines. The coveted Sunday 12:50 p.m., Southwest non-stop flight from Las Vegas to Tucson was sold out in January.
The Sunday 8:05 a.m., and 2:55 p.m., Southwest flights that detour through San Diego before arriving in Tucson both sold out long ago.
The Pac-12 needs Arizona’s heavy involvement to make the basketball tournament a success and moving it across the street would likely damage the dynamics.
Is bigger better? It wasn’t in Los Angeles.