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Each year for the past three years, the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship tournament for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) held in Billings, has been better than the one previous. This year was no different, with attendance far out-pacing that of last year, just as attendance last year exceeded the first year that Billings was awarded the contract to host the event.

Ticket sales at Rimrock Auto Arena at Metra Park were 19,408, compared to 17,565 in 2018, and 12,993 in 2017 for the week-long tournament from March 13-19.

The success this year was certainly helped by the fact that four of the 32 competing teams were Montana teams, and the true icing on the cake was that a Montana team, The University of Montana Western — Dillon came out on top.  Executive Director of Visit Billings, Alex Tyson, made the point that to have a Montana team win the national championship is an outcome that could hardly have been hoped for in the beginning, and to actually realize it? Sweet.

Attendance was undoubtedly boosted by the fact that Dillon “has such a tight-knit community” where everyone wanted to cheer on their team. There were reports that it was not uncommon in Dillon to find stores closed with signs posted that they were going to Billings to root for the Bulldogs.

But more than local teams participating, “our community is realizing what a great event this is for us,” said Tyson. “They appreciate the high caliber of athletes, who are extremely committed and who are very good at what they do.”

Metra Park officials were quite enthused about the increase in ticket sales. Metra Park Manager Bill Dutcher told members of the Metra Park Advisory Board, last week, that the event “went perfectly smooth. It couldn’t have gone any better.”

All categories related to the event were up “substantially” for Metra Park, said Dutcher. The capital improvement fund generated $15,935, and their share of food sales were $32,350. “It’s gone up three years in a row,” he said, adding “everyone is looking forward to next year.”

“Nobody is making money off this tournament,” said Tyson, “our hope is that our youth are benefited in getting exposed to this caliber of play and that it helps businesses in the middle of March and is an important economic impact.”

Next year, March 18-24, will be the last for Billings’ stint hosting the event. Marking the 40th year of the tournament, 2020 will be the last Division I tournament. After 2020 NAIA women’s basketball will combine Division I and Division II into one, and the national 16-team tournament will be held in Sioux City, Iowa, which has hosted the Division II tournament for the past 22 years.

Tyson, who spearheaded Visit Billings’ effort to garner the tournament for Billings, said that even though they knew it was a long shot, they submitted bids for the 2021-24 tournament, but not surprisingly NAIA officials selected Sioux City. That is not to say, however, that there might not be other NAIA events held in Billings. Visit Billings will be submitting another bid for the 2025-2029 round.

NAIA officials were quoted as saying that they were pleased with the success they had working with the Billings community and will miss Billings. Tyson pointed out that last year, Billings’ was named the best host city of the year by NAIA.

The key to being a good host city, according to Tyson, is that “everything is seamless and no one is injured, and the athletes are taken care of.” To underscore how well Billings has done, she pointed out that in comparison to Billings’ escalating attendance, attendance to the event in Independence Missouri was 3,900. “Our first attendance was 12,993!” said Tyson, adding that “It just shows how much Montana likes the tournament and appreciates seeing the caliber of players who participate.”  

But Visit Billings has its sights set on attracting similar events to the Magic City.

It has always been their goal, said Tyson, to demonstrate to the world that Billings is a good location for sport events and the experience with NAIA has more than achieved that goal. She credited the community and many, many volunteers for stepping up to make that happen. They need a hundred volunteers on site at all times, said Tyson.

While the Visit Billings team oversees the organization of the tournament, Rocky Mountain College, under the direction of Jeff Malby, oversees and manages all the technical aspects of the event. Technical includes webcasting which is directed by Bob Rittierodt of Montana Sports Cast.

Metra Park staff makes sure that the court is down in Rimrock Auto Arena, as well as handling ticket sales and security and making sure that the entire facility is clean and maintained throughout the week.

Colleen Sullivan, a retired educator from Whitefish, assists Kelly McCandless of the Billings Chamber of Commerce,  in overseeing the youth program – Champions of Character – about which Tyson commented, “The kids stole the show again.” Sponsored by Tire-Rama /Cooper Tires, the program boosted student attendance on Wednesday and Thursday by 1,046. Scheels Youth Impact Day on Friday brought 2,328 students from throughout the region. Another 155 students came into the arena with bands and dance/ cheer teams. Total student attendance was 3,529, representing 52 different schools.

Tricia Hansen of Stockman Bank oversaw the organization of about 45 girls who volunteered as ball girls; four girls are assigned at each hoop in a game to monitor to the court and make sure there are no glitches in play.

Stefan Cattarin, Sales Manager for Visit Billings, organizes the engagement of Billings businesses, making sure the hotels, restaurants and attractions like Zoo Montana have all the information they need to participate and help sponsor the many aspects of the tournament.

Alyssa Voeltz, Visitor Services Specialist, arranged for the dinner for the teams that was held the night before “tip off.”

Dick Zier volunteers to meet teams, coaches and other  VIPS at the airport and to make sure they get escorted to the appropriate places.

The list could go on and on, demonstrating that it is a community effort.

For next year: “We want to go out in style,” said Tyson, “We want to help NAIA celebrate 40 years, and to make sure that we are enjoying it for one last year and for the economic impact.”