For the Mountain West Conference, the decision to hold its annual basketball championship tournament in Las Vegas every year at least until 2010 boils down to some practical considerations. It's a destination city that has no trouble accommodating and entertaining fans, and the games are well-attended.
There are few things as disheartening as a tournament game in which a smattering of applause gets absorbed by a sea of empty seats.
But the shenanigans that took place in the stands immediately following University of Nevada, Las Vegas' victory over Brigham Young University in the title game last Saturday ought to make the conference reconsider. In the business of running a college basketball tournament, one thing clearly ought to be more important than attracting a large, paying audience, and that is the safety of those people.
For some odd reason, the fights that broke out after Saturday's game were thoroughly covered only by Utah's media. These altercations were, on their face, newsworthy. Bodies and fists were flying. People were throwing beer at one another. Swarms of fans tried to break through security and celebrate on the court. It may not be possible at this point to lay blame on the fans of one team over the other, but it is significant to note that the same court-rushing behavior occurred last season, again after a UNLV win.
Surely, the conference must have a clause somewhere in its contract with UNLV that allows it to escape the last two years unless this situation changes. At the least, the conference ought to demand that alcohol sales be curtailed during tournament games and that security adopt more effective strategies. This year, a 6-foot hockey-style barrier was erected to separate fans from the floor, but that proved ineffective.
And really, erecting barriers to separate fans from the court sounds a bit too much like what has to be done in other countries to protect against soccer hooligans. Americans, for the most part, have a tradition of treating their games like games.
The conference's official statement on the matter sounded a bit too much like a shrug of the shoulders for our tastes. UNLV may indeed get an unfair home court advantage by hosting the tournament each year, but that is a secondary consideration. We will be watching carefully to see whether conference officials give fan safety the primary consideration it deserves.