BILLINGS – In August 2016, Billings was a finalist to host a major college basketball tournament for the second time in 18 months. The N-A-I-A was looking for a home for its national women’s tourney, and representatives liked what they saw in Montana.
Alan Grosbach, the NAIA Manager of Communications, believed the city of Billings met all of the requirements.
“It fits the mold of what we look for a lot with NAIA cities.”
The tournament is a week long event featuring 32 teams from across the country. That means 31 games would be played at Rimrock Auto Arena, which was the Big Sky Conference’s issue when evaluating Metrapark in March of 2015. That issue was fixed.
Ray Massie, the MetraPark Director of Marketing and Sales, explains some of the changes that have been made.
“We looked at the basketball floor, and we determined we needed a better floor. The commissioners stepped up, paid the money and bought the brand new floor we have had since late last year.”
The NAIA Associate Director of Championship Events, Jamie Adams, liked what she saw.
“It’s a great facility, a great arena.” Adams said. “Not only that court, but also the extra amenities – making sure we have enough locker rooms for all of our teams, making sure the athletes are going to have a good experience.”
However, Adams stressed basketball was just one part of the bidding process.
“You can only spend so much time in an arena, so we’re looking for an experience,” Adams said. “We’re looking for a community. Our events that do the best really do have that buy-in from the community. And year after year, people remember them, people remember the teams who come back, and our student athletes remember the cities, remember the sites and the people when they come back the next year.”
The NAIA normally knows the site over a year in advance, so a decision was expected soon with Billings’ audition only 8 months before the tournament. Three weeks later, the decision was made official.
“The energy and excitement that this team has shown throughout the entirety of the bidding process has been extremely impressive. If the student athletes got half the experience that we got on our site visit, they’re going to have an absolutely wonderful time.”
Alex Tyson from Visit Billings had no doubt that the tournament could thrive in the Magic City.
“Billings is a great sports town with great fans who really, no matter what the sport is, people will come out in droves to watch and support,” Tyson said. “We just like it. Couple that with the fact we have great facilities and we’re a win, win destination.”
Visit Billings took a gamble on Tyson being right. Organizers spent 150-thousand dollars putting the event together in just five months, and needed to break even. With almost 10 thousand total spectators over the week, they were thrilled.
“This is as big of an event as we’ve done,” Tyson said. “The fact that we can do this, execute it and the community is going to meet us beyond halfway speaks volumes on what our future holds.”
Oklahoma City ended up beating Frontier representative L-C State in the title game, in front of a loud crowd on a Tuesday night. That was the ultimate measure of success, a sentiment echoed by almost every team in the tournament.
Oklahoma City head coach Bo Overton couldn’t help but brag about how much his team appreciated the support.
“We were in the tournament last year in Kansas City and there was nobody at the games,” Overton said. “Everybody worked hard and all that, but there was 3-4,000 people tonight. It was a great atmosphere, just a super championship atmosphere and you got to give it to the city and everybody that put this on.”
Billings signed a two-year contract, so we knew the event would be back in 2018, but the NAIA said from the beginning they were looking for a long term solution.
They were not lying. Four months after March’s success, Billings was awarded the 2019 tournament as well. It looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.