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UNM tries to improve Pit, bring back NCAA Tournament

If you rebuild it, they will come.

Won’t they?

Well, they rebuilt it and Lobo fans, although not in numbers like before, have come.

The NCAA Tournament, however, is a different story.

One of the selling points behind University Arena’s $60 million renovation in 2010 was attracting the Big Dance back to the court that created one of college basketball’s most iconic moments – the late Jim Valvano racing around the floor looking for a hug after his North Carolina State Wolfpack stunned Houston in the 1983 national championship game.

Sure, NCAA tournaments, both men’s and women’s, have been back in the facility, now called WisePies Arena, aka The Pit – but only once since that renovation. And the successful bid for that 2012 tournament (men’s second and third rounds, post play-in games), came years before the facelift.

In 2011, the University of New Mexico, along with help from the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau and the state of New Mexico, again tried to snag the men’s NCAA Tournament for any or all of the years between 2013-15. (Bids were made once every three years for three-year increments.)

The bid was denied.

UNM bid again in 2014, this time to attract any or all of the tournaments from 2016-18. Again, denied.

This year, the NCAA is again taking bids – this time for the men’s tournaments in 2019-though-2022 – as well as championships for numerous other sports. A school must submit its intentions to bid by June 27 and submit bids by late August.

UNM athletic director Paul Krebs and assistant athletic director of events and Mike Haggerty said they will bid on the all of the men’s basketball tournaments. They likely will bid for events like men’s and women’s golf, track and field and possibly others.

“We are meeting (Monday) to discuss which ones we plan to bid on,” Haggerty said. Winners will be announced in December.

Krebs and Haggerty said they are confident of winning bids, including the men’s NCAA Tournament. But they know it’s not a lock.

“It’s just an incredibly competitive process,” Krebs said, “much more than ever before. There are just so many more arenas now than ever before.”

Still, wasn’t that $60 million supposed to help bring the event back to one of college hoops’ most famous venues?

If not, has that money been worth the fix-ups?

“I think the renovation was a home run,” Krebs told the Journal, adding he knows of no one at the school who is upset that it was done. “We’re very pleased. … It’s not just the facility the fans see. It’s the locker rooms, the training room, the weight room. We have top-of-the-line facilities for our basketball programs, and that was a huge part of it.

“Aesthetically, the building is much more pleasing. It functions better. There’s a lot of things to be very happy about.”

There have been a number of criticisms of the Pit since the renovation, many because of the smaller seating capacity. Early on, there were false fire alarms and some bleachers collapsing in the student section.

And while there are still some issues to be worked out – mainly the sound system, the “one disappointment with me,” Krebs said, and Wi-Fi, which UNM said it has addressed and is improving – most of the bugs have been fixed in the building that first opened in 1966.

But there’s still the gnawing question of what it will take to get the NCAA Tournament back. No, we’re never going to see the likes of Villanova’s buzzer beater against North Carolina to win the national title. Final Fours, which go to the gigantic multi-purpose domes that can seat around 70,000, are out of the question. While there is a move to get Final Fours moved back to arenas, the Pit would still, in all probability, be far too small.

But how about those early-round games we became so used to for decades? Are more improvements the answer?

“Are there some things that you would do differently, that you wished turned out differently?” Krebs said rhetorically. “There’s always those kind of thoughts in any renovation process, in any construction project. ‘Boy, I would have put a door here. Should we have done something different?’ But nothing of major significance. …

“The renovation was not about hosting the NCAA tournaments. I think there is more focus on just the NCAA piece of it – which was a piece, but by no means the driving piece of the renovation.”

Krebs said one of the biggest challenges with improved technology is keeping up with the times – almost on a daily basis.

Despite the renovations, there are still improvements that need to be made.

“The expectations for the building, from a technology standpoint, have changed dramatically in three or four years’ time,” Krebs said. “Now everyone comes into the building with the expectation that they have strong Wi-Fi service. That wasn’t on anybody’s radar when the building was (renovated). You’re thinking about scoreboards, and LED boards, and message boards, and that kind of technology, and perhaps Wi-Fi for your press and your statistics.

“But look at the span of the last two or three years with technology in general, and yeah, your building needs to be ready for the fans with Wi-Fi. You have to have it ready for streaming and text messaging and all these kinds of services that weren’t on our radar.”

The challenges

Snatching another NCAA Tournament would be a huge cash cow for the university, city and state. UNM estimated that Bernalillo County received a $5.8 million boost to the economy, local tax increased by more than $800,000 and the feds got another $660,000 from the 2012 tournament.

The school makes money each year from events such as the state high school basketball tournament, the Pro Bull Riders’ Ty Murray Invitational and the Gathering of Indian Nations. The PBR event is held the first week of March Madness, but if UNM wins an NCAA bid, Haggerty said, “We have a good enough relationship with the PBR that we would move them that year to another date.”

Despite the successful events the Pit holds each year, not getting the NCAAs back has been gnawing at UNM officials. Nonetheless, they were encouraged by the NCAA to keep trying.

“Some people (with the NCAA) told other cities, ‘Don’t bother putting in another bid,'” Haggerty said. “… I think what we’re going to do differently is try to build some personal relationships with people on the committee. Just try to get them more aware.

“If you look at the committee, there’s only a couple on the committee from the western part of the United States. We need to build more relationships with them.”

The committee is the same one that chooses the 68-team field for the NCAA men’s tournament.

Greg Remington, a former school communications assistant and sports information director, was the lead organizer for UNM’s bids until retiring in 2013. Remington, now a researcher for CBS Sports who lives in New York, told the Journal that the committee didn’t give much feedback in the past when it turned down bids.

“It would have been helpful, so you know what things you need to improve,” Remington said. “Going back, after 2005, I think that it had something to do with renovation getting started. They did say they would not be able to come back with the way the building and facility was at that time. After the renovation was approved, we were awarded for the 2012 tournament.”

Remington said the NCAA looks at a number of factors in the city, such as access to the airport, flight and hotel availability and restaurants, and Albuquerque “certainly fulfilled all those requirements.”

He, too, said he doesn’t believe the NCAA has any issue with the way the renovation turned out. However, the Pit still faces problems many other arenas don’t.

“I think what UNM runs into, and we did at time, is there are a lot more newer facilities,” he said. “There are many multi-purpose facilities that provide a lot of space required – backstage space – that’s required. UNM still does not have that space, even with the renovations.”

Because the Pit was built below ground level, there is only so much expansion – and none at court level. In nearly every multi-purpose arena, the backstage areas of the building are at the same level as the court. Thus, the players, officials, media, etc., can leave the court and be directly in locker rooms, interview areas, etc.

Another issue that comes into play by being underground is getting the court to meet NCAA requirements.

“To get the court to fit, it cost the NCAA around $20,000 in 2012,” Haggerty said. “But had we received the bid, we were going to pay for that out of our share of revenue from the tournament (which he said was included in the bid).

“The footprint of the Pit is so tight and they truck in courts, so they would have to make adjustments for their court to fit our floor.”

Haggerty said the NCAA courts are much bigger than Bob King Court in WisePies Arena, and must be “cut down to fit the exact footprint. We will pay for the shipping and the employees to do the work. Normally, the NCAA just places the floor over a hockey rink or something like that in a larger arena.”

The Pit roof does not allow for a hanging scoreboard, but Haggerty said he didn’t believe was a deal-breaker. Remington agreed, but said, “I do know the NCAA prefers them.”

Not giving up

The biggest factor, according to everyone contacted for this story, that the Pit hasn’t won a bid since the renovation is simple.

Timing.

The NCAA’s David Worlock, director of media coordination and statistics, told the Journal that UNM’s bid was, indeed, a strong one.

“There was nothing wrong with UNM’s bid,” he said. “If there was something that was preventing a city, we would certainly share it with the them.”

Worlock said he didn’t know whether the Pit renovation played a part in the committee’s decision. He said there are certain standards an arena and city must have to win a bid.

“There must be a minimum amount of space for our TV partners – Turner and CBS – the credentialed media, an interview room, photographers. We have arenas as big as 23,000 seating capacity for the first and second round and as low as 10-to-12,000. As long as they have the space for our requirements, we’re certainly going to take a look.”

Nearly all of the sites selected in 2014 are multi-purpose arenas that host professional teams. Boise State’s Taco Bell Arena, which seats just over 12,000 for NCAA Tournament play, is a notable exception. The Pit seats just under 14,000 for the NCAAs, Haggerty said.

Krebs maintains confidence that continuing to bid to bring the NCAAs to the Pit will yield results. And despite the lack or space, the lack of fan seating and the inability of hanging a scoreboard, there is something the Pit still has going for it.

“It’s the Pit,” said longtime Associated Press sports writer Eddie Pells, who just covered the national championship game between Villanova and UNC and has covered NCAA Tournaments since 2000.

“It has so much history and it’s a place, in my opinion, that should always be in the rotation – whatever the drawbacks might be.”

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