When organizers of the $1 million, winner-take-all TBT – The Basketball Tournament – started looking to expand their footprint and add some new regional host locations this summer, the Pit seemed intriguing.
Not only did TBT need to stretch farther west, but that gym built 37 feet into the ground in southeast Albuquerque has a bit of an aura to it.
Nevertheless, there were questions about whether the Albuquerque experiment would work.
TBT co-founder Dan Friel said he knows the exact instant any doubt was erased.
“It didn’t take much more than when The Panamaniacs came on the court (Monday night) and were immediately and roundly booed as though they were a WWE villain,” Friel said, referring to Monday night’s nationally televised game between the team of mostly former NMSU Aggies playing tournament host The Enchantment, a team of mostly former UNM Lobos.
“That’s the sort of passion that is hard to replicate anywhere. So, I heard that and immediately knew that this is a place that has a lot of potential because you don’t get that type of reaction just anywhere.”
A former U.S. Attorney who left his job in New Orleans to launch the TBT nine years ago with childhood friend and fellow co-founder Jonathan Mugar, Friel didn’t need more confirmation, but as Monday’s game played out and the announced crowd just north of 3,500 filled the Pit with passion, and plenty of noise, his phone began to fill up with text messages from friends, business partners, colleagues and acquaintances from around the country telling him how amazing the atmosphere seemed to be playing for the television crowd.
So, is it safe to say TBT would be interested in a return to the Pit, maybe as early as next summer?
“Yes. I can say that unequivocally. Yes, we are interested in doing that and have already had some conversations about that with the folks here (at UNM), including the athletic director, Eddie Nuñez,” Friel said. “We’re eager to see how far this can go in Albuquerque.”
Organizers noted that while there were only a few hundred fans for most games that didn’t involve the Lobos (there was an announced crowd of 916 at Thursday’s regional final between No. 1 Heartfire and No. 3 L.A. Cheaters), that is not unlike any other regional site. And while the 3,500 at Monday’s rivalry game may have sounded like a low number to locals accustomed to seeing the Pit get huge numbers each fall for the Lobo/Aggie college games, Monday’s crowd was one of the largest ever for TBT.
Weekend games, as opposed to weeknight games, also have proven to have much larger crowds.
“I think that we still have a long ways to go in terms of building up awareness of the event,” Friel said. “TBT has been around for nine years, but every time we go to a new city, there’s a huge learning curve as to what the event is and why it’s so much fun for fans. Hopefully the 6,000 or 7,000 folks that came by this week are going to tell 6,000 or 7,000 more friends about it and they’ll be talking about it a little bit more each and every summer. I think the potential here is extraordinarily high.”
REGIONAL FINAL: The top seed Heartfire beat No. 3 L.A. Cheaters on Thursday, 86-72. Heartfire, which ousted Enchantment Tuesday, 79-74, hit 13 3-pointers.
AIR CONDITIONING: Asked if he thought the Pit’s overmatched swamp coolers that made the experience uncomfortable for fans and players Monday and Tuesday put a damper on the week, Friel said no.
“For me, and I think the players would agree, I don’t think the conditions on the floor really played much of a role,” Friel said. “… If it’s 105 outside anywhere, you’re going to have issues.”