The remarkable success of Sacramento State’s men’s basketball team has university and community officials scrambling to prevent a possible public relations disaster.
Sacramento State is in the running to win the Big Sky Conference regular-season championship, which would give the Hornets the right to host the conference post-season tournament in March for the first time ever.
The Hornets’ ancient arena, however, isn’t ready for the big dance.
Big Sky officials say the 60-year-old Hornets Nest isn’t capable of hosting the eight-team tournament. Its seating capacity of 1,102 isn’t nearly large enough, and the facilities can’t accommodate ESPN’s cameras and other equipment, said Big Sky spokesman Jon Kasper.
The result is a community-wide scramble for an alternative location. The obvious answers, such as Sleep Train Arena, Memorial Auditorium and UC Davis’ arena, are already booked the weekend of March 12-14, when the tournament is scheduled.
“We’re looking for creative solutions,” said Bill Macriss, the university’s interim athletic director. “Within the next couple of weeks, we’ll hopefully have a sense of what we’re going to be doing.”
Mike Sophia of the Sacramento Sports Commission, which is helping the university scout locations, said all sorts of sites are under consideration –even a conference center at McClellan Park in North Highlands.
“You can build a pretty nice college basketball arena in a ballroom,” Sophia said. “We’d love to have an option for them here.”
Holding the tournament in Sacramento would bring hundreds of visitors to the region for three days, filling area hotels and restaurants. If Sacramento can’t figure out a suitable location, the Big Sky’s regular-season runner-up will host the tournament, Kasper said.
For the Hornets, the stakes are enormous for an entirely different reason. Playing before the home fans could give Sacramento State a big edge on the court. If the Hornets manage to win the Big Sky tournament, they’d be guaranteed their first-ever berth in the NCAA basketball tournament –aka “March Madness.” Making the NCAA tournament can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a school and its athletic programs in terms of national exposure and other considerations.
League officials are keeping their fingers crossed. Deputy Commissioner Ron Loghry said he’s in constant contact with Sacramento State officials and plans to visit the community late next week to look at prospective locations. He said the league would be open to having Sacramento State host the tournament “in Stockton or Reno” if necessary.
“We’ve told them no high schools,” Kasper said. “They can’t do it at a high school.”
Sacramento State’s arena problem didn’t crop up overnight. When Sacramento State joined the conference in 1996, it explicitly agreed that it would find an alternative site if it ever got to host the conference tournament. “They knew they could never host the men’s basketball championship there,” Kasper said. “They’ve always known that.”
Macriss said he started looking for alternatives as far back as last summer, when it became apparent that the team would be good this season. The situation took on greater urgency this week, when Big Sky officials circulated a memo to the member teams outlining the potential problem in Sacramento.
The Hornets are 13-6 overall and 7-1 in conference games. They are a half-game ahead of Eastern Washington and Montana, heading into a Thursday night home game vs. Montana State. After that, they have nine more games, with the regular season wrapping up March 7.
Kasper said the problems with the conference tournament underscore Sacramento State’s need for a better permanent sports facility. In December, university students rejected a proposed $438 annual fee increase to pay for a 5,000-seat, $125 million arena on campus.
“This hopefully brings (the issue) to the table,” Kasper said. “Sacramento State is trying to get an arena built and they turned it down.”
The Hornets Nest’s inadequacies revolve in part around television. The building is configured in a way that it’s very difficult to position the cameras high enough to give ESPN’s audience a good view of the court, Kasper said. And it’s likely that some of the seats would have to be ripped out to make way for certain platforms needed for TV.
As it is, there aren’t enough seats at the Hornets Nest to make the tournament pencil out financially. Under Big Sky rules, the host team keeps all the revenue from the conference tournament, including the broadcast rights fees paid by ESPN. In return, the host must guarantee it can pay the league and the seven other participating schools at least $130,000, Macriss said.
“With 1,000 seats, it’s impossible to do,” Kasper said. “You need 3,000 to make it work at a minimum.”
Because of that minimum guarantee, Macriss said the university is keen on finding an alternative site that wouldn’t be too costly. On the other hand, the possibility of winning the tournament and getting a slot in the NCAAs means he is anxious to keep the event in Sacramento.
“The NCAA tournament is the carrot at the end of the stick,” Macriss said.
Sacramento State wouldn’t be the first Big Sky team to look for an alternative site to host the conference tournament. Portland State, whose arena is only slightly larger than Sacramento State’s, was able to find other locations in Portland when it won the regular-season championships in 2005 and 2008.
Even with the Hornets playing elsewhere March 12-14, the Hornets Nest won’t be empty that weekend. The women’s team could win its regular season, too. In this case, Big Sky officials have said the conference tournament can be played at the Nest.
Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.