Conference Championship Destinations

Honda Center in Anaheim, CA…home to the Big West Basketball Tournament (photo from Jason Bartel at Stadium Journey)

The calendar has turned to the third month of the year and you know what that means…March Madness! Yes, even though I’ve been down on the sport of college basketball, I can not help myself from getting excited as the postseason draws near. While mainstream media and the general population focus attention on the Big Tournament, the conference gatherings are just as special. The culmination of a frenetic regular season all boils down to a neat, tidy bracket to determine a champion (well, save for leagues like the Horizon and MAC with their step-ladder approach). Conference Tournaments feature competitive games, amazing moments and annual fan gatherings at neutral-site destinations. I’ve written before where I think each league should host their ultimate finale, but for this post I want to focus on which ones are the best place to spend a 3-4 days as a bi-partisan fan and enjoy the entire event. As always, I like to focus on the leagues that get less attention, so this list will stay clear of the Power Five:


1)  Las Vegas, NV  –  Orleans Arena (WCC) and Thomas & Mack Center (MWC)  

The first choice is obvious…Vegas Baby! As the ultimate sports travel destination, Sin City hosts a remarkable four conference tournaments (Pac-12 and WAC are the others). Despite the seeming contradictory decision of the West Coast Conference to have their all religious-following members gather in a place that isn’t exactly conducive to behaving by Catholic/Mormon standards, the move made here six years ago has been a resounding success. And they moved to a traditional bracket! The WCC plays a little off the Strip in the Orleans Hotel & Casino. I stayed here back in 2009 and loved it as the facility had everything you want in a Vegas hotel, plus it is quieter and the heart of the city is only a few minutes drive away. Meanwhile, across town at the Thomas & Mack Center, the Mountain West Conference gathers a week later for their shindig. While UNLV is the host, the obvious lure of the bright lights brings tons of fans in to the pro-style arena which negates a significant advantage. Check out the mass of fans New Mexico had with them for the 2013 final against the Rebels.

2)  St. Louis  –  Scottrade Center (Missouri Valley Conference)

Nowhere else in college basketball will you find such a gathering of alumni and fans convening for the annual event in St. Louis. That means the bars in Laclede’s Landing are quite colorful from the yellow of Wichita State to the Bradley/Illinois State red and the Northern Iowa/Evansville purple. This is the rare “mid-major” event capable of filling an entire large arena and the central location of St. Louis within the league’s footprint makes them an ideal host. Scottrade Center being downtown and close to attractions along with post-game establishments already set the stage for a great arena trip. However, it is the people and tight-knit community of these Midwestern schools where the atmosphere sets it apart.

3)  Anaheim, CA  –  Honda Center (Big West Conference)

The California Bus League (aka Big West) culminates it’s season in Anaheim and SoCal is a great destination to go along with a neat, three-day Thursday-Saturday Tournament. My only issue is they moved venues a few years ago to the way-too-big Honda Center. With crowds not filling even half the place, their former home at the Anaheim Convention Center was a much more appropriate venue. Plus the location there is perfect as right across the street is DisneyLand. Regardless, the Honda Center is still only 5 minutes away down Katella Ave and the amenities at the big arena are better.

4)  Cleveland, OH  –  Quicken Loans Arena (Mid-American Conference)

So why Cleveland in Winter…MACtion! This is always a hotly contested event and the downtown area has shed the whole “Mistake-by-the-Lake” moniker. Not far from the arena is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with the Great Lakes Science Center right next door. Now, if they would just do something about that horrible arena name and go back to their original title of “Gund Arena”.

5)  Asheville, NC  –  U.S. Cellular Center (Southern Conference)

One of the Nation’s oldest conferences came back to a neutral site in Asheville to resounding success and this peaceful, eclectic getaway near the Smoky Mountains is a terrific place to visit. The U.S. Cellular Center is in the historic downtown, notable for it’s stunning architecture and array of small local places to eat. Make sure to check out the massive Biltmore Estate while in town too. The arena that hosts the SoCon action may have a new name, but it is certainly old school as the Civic Center box design screams 1970s, but features great sight-lines from the small upper section of seating.


    1. Good Call…The Big South has done a great job with their tournament and having near Myrtle Beach. CC’s new arena is a great little facility

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