For a second consecutive year, the marquee event of men’s college basketball’s nonconference slate has been relocated. After playing last season in a bubble in Asheville, N.C., the Maui Invitational welcomes fans back in 2021 but will do so on the mainland in Las Vegas due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions in Hawaii. One of the main people behind that decision was Tom Valdiserri, the Maui Invitational’s tournament operator through his role as an executive vice president at KemperLesnik.
Sports Illustrated sat down with Valdiserri to discuss the decision to move the tournament for a second straight year, the logistics of the late relocation and what this year’s Vegas-based event (which features Oregon, Houston, Notre Dame, Butler, Texas A&M, Wisconsin, St. Mary's and Chaminade) will look like.
Sports Illustrated: Can you speak to some of the very early contingency planning you put in place for this event? Obviously in the spring and early summer there was optimism that things would, essentially, be completely back to normal.
Tom Valdiserri: We learned from 2020, and we knew having plans B and C needed to take place. We had some options based on 2020 because we were in conversations with about six other markets. And, you know, for this year, it just made sense to come out to Vegas, given the location of our teams and the ease of access for them and the fans. In mid-July, we were very hopeful that we would be in Maui. We were there in Maui in mid-July, and I'd never seen it more packed in my life. And then of course, 10 days later, the Delta [variant] hits and the governor came out in August, early September and said, 'Please don't come here until the end of October.' We knew we had to start ramping up the plans and Vegas became the spot. And having worked with MGM and all their facilities in the past, we knew the people, and we knew it would be an easy transition. They're phenomenal to work with. When we walked in that building [the Michelob Ultra Arena] about a month ago, we were blown away. Love it. It was a perfect location.
SI: What was the process like of informing the schools and coaches of the move and what was their response like?
TV: The mayor of Maui, Mike Victorino, went to Honolulu in [the] last couple days of September to try to get some of the restrictions lifted in terms of travel and gatherings with the governor. And he called me on Sept. 29 and said 'it's not happening.' So we scheduled a phone call for Oct. 1, got all the coaches on a call. We informed them and said, 'Here's the plan. Here's what happened. Here's why we're moving. It was the restrictions in Hawaii, it wasn't our choice.' They were all in. [Tournament chairman] Dave Odom had been preparing each of them with individual calls prior to that saying that there's a strong likelihood. They had a few questions about logistics and protocols and practice schedules and locations, but nothing that we hadn't already anticipated and had the plan in place [for]. It was a very easy transition. I think it actually, because of the issues in Hawaii, people were not going to come because [of] the travel restrictions and the issues that were taking place over there. So I think we're gonna see a few people who wouldn't have gone to Maui because of that be here in Las Vegas.
SI: With several multi-team events happening in Las Vegas this week, were there any added logistical challenges with things like gym space?
TV: It wasn't that big of an issue. Frankly, there's only one Maui Invitational. We feel and so do many others that we are the premier early season tournament, so I'm not really concerned about it. Like we do in Maui on occasion for practices, the teams get one practice in Lahaina Civic Center, they'll get one here at Michelob Ultra Arena. And then we get one at an alternate location. So we worked with some high schools. And that's what we do in Maui as well. They’ll be over at a local high school, and actually, through that high school and the ADs in that conference from those high schools, we're running a ticket offer to thank them for the use and for the ability for our teams to practice. We're excited about it.
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SI: We’re certainly in a different place than we were last year with COVID-19, but what lessons did you learn from last year’s success in Asheville and what types of protocols have you put in place to make this tournament a safe one?
TV: The protocols this year are a little bit less than last year, I mean, we were under a complete bubble. When we had the calls with the coaches last year, we got some pushback because they were a little strict, and they were more strict than the guidelines that the NCAA put out. We are happy to say that we were the only early-season tournament, in fact, the only college sports event in 2020 that had no games canceled, no teams canceled, no positive cases. So we felt pretty good about that coming into this year knowing the restrictions would be a little less. We are requiring masks for everybody who comes into the Michelob Ultra Arena. The only people who will not have to wear masks are the 10 players and the three refs on the court. That's the biggest thing from a protocol standpoint in terms of COVID.
SI: What should fans know about this year’s tournament?
TV: I think our goal this year was to create as much of the Hawaiian and Maui atmosphere as possible. The court is going to be a design that will make you feel like you are in a court in Maui. We connected with a group here called the Las Vegas Hawaiian Civic Club, and they've been wonderful in working with us. We’ve got Hawaiian entertainment during the games, halftime, timeouts, those kinds of things. When we're in Maui, we do a traditional Hawaiian prayer to kick off the tournament, and we're going to do that here. The Hawaiian Anthem will be sung like we do when we're in Maui. So we're keeping the feel of Maui here in Las Vegas. I think that's the thing that maybe the regular fans just [don’t] get. They might expect we're just going to come in and put on the games and get out. But that's not how we operate. We want people to have the look, the feel, the excitement of the Maui Invitational as they would if they were in Maui.
SI: What do the final 72 hours or so before the tournament tips off look like?
TV: Operationally, one of the things that's keeping us up a little bit, there's a boxing match over at the Michelob Ultra Arena [on Saturday]. So we take the court at like four in the morning and start decking it out, including the detailing, the banner hanging, all those kinds of things. And while all that's happening, we get teams practicing too. So there's a lot of logistics involved, but like I said, I think our team is the best in the industry and I'm very confident that they'll have it ready to rock and roll.
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