Workers get The Palace of Auburn Hills ready Tuesday for practices for the NCAA basketball tournament. (Daniel Mears The Detroit News)
When March Madness rolls into Metro Detroit this week, area bars, hotels and entertainment venues are hoping collegiate-basketball fans will spend as much money as they do time rooting for hometown favorites and the rest of their brackets.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual basketball tournament promises to fill coffers across county lines. Oakland University is hosting the event, which takes place at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Both stand to benefit from the national exposure, and Palace reps said they are eager to show off the venue's $15 million in renovations.
Business owners such as Michael Allen rejoiced when he found out that both Michigan State University and the University of Michigan would be holding public practices today as well as playing at The Palace on Thursday. These teams will bring even more people to nearby fan favorite, Hoops Sports and Spirits, which Allen co-owns with his brother, Jim.
"Of the 23 years we've been here, the last four have been by far the most difficult. … The economy has been rough around here, and the Detroit Pistons haven't been so good lately," Allen said.
Allen added that he's hopeful that his fellow MSU alums will crowd the bar, opening at 9 a.m. on game days.
"Last time the tournament was here (in 2006) we did really well," Allen said.
"The universities know us. We even had one school, South Dakota State, ask if we could be their school bar."
Kevin Grigg, vice president of public relations for The Palace, said there is free parking for those attending today's open practice. He added that officials expect tickets to sell out for both Thursday games.
Michigan State will play at 12:15 p.m. and Michigan will play at 7:15 p.m.
"It's great that we've got both local teams here playing in front of their fans," said Grigg, who noted renovations to The Palace's West Atrium entrance, main concourse, suites and hospitality areas.
Auburn Hills City Manager Peter Auger said the municipality is doing its part to ensure game and commuter traffic flows freely around The Palace. He estimates 20,000 people coming through for the games along with 80,000 folks trying to get to work.
"We want to put our best foot forward. This is our chance to show people some Michigan hospitality," Auger said.
Bill Bohde, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Metro Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau, called the tournament good for the region because traveling fans often have to stay for at least three nights to watch the Thursday and Saturday games.
Bureau subsidiary Detroit Sports Commission estimated that direct spending for the second and third round games will reach $1.5 million.
The Crowne Plaza Auburn Hills on Opdyke Road will be filled with NCAA officials, referees, media representatives and related groups, said General Manager Chuck DeSantis. Remaining vacancies at the 190-room hotel are sure to be snapped up by individuals on a first-come, first-served basis, he said. Its on-site restaurant, O'Malley's Irish Tavern, is likely to be packed through Saturday.
"This event will give us a very strong base of business that is going to take us through the week," DeSantis said.
"There's a real celebratory atmosphere, and everyone involved will have related events for alums and others in town. It's not only great for business, but it is great fun."
Having eight teams and their associated entourages in town means everyone will get their share, said Rhonda Pritchard, general manager of Palazzo di Bacci, a bocce venue and Italian restaurant on South Lapeer Road in Lake Orion, less than two miles north of the Palace.
"We're ready for their business," Pritchard said.
"We will welcome them on our sign, letting them know we have room, can accommodate them and serve them a terrific dinner."
Having special promotions for game days is a no-brainer, said Michael Bernacchi, University of Detroit Mercy marketing professor. Hosting the Final Four in 2009 helped UDM's brand, he said, and it will do the same for Oakland this year.
For example, Ann Arbor-based Domino's Pizza, the official pizza of NCAA March Madness, will offer a 50 percent off weeklong deal for all pies ordered online. That first day of the Final Four is regularly one of the company's top 10 Saturdays in terms of sales, officials said.
Olga's Kitchen Inc. of Troy CFO Gene Nelson said its two locations in Auburn Hills will have free small plates of its famous Olga's Snackers with any purchase for Round One of the Big Dance.
"We are embracing March Madness and our collegiate athletes by offering a special promotion during the games. We have two locations in Auburn Hills near the Palace and with our targeted promotions we anticipate an increase in sales," Nelson said.
Staff Writer Michael Martinez contributed.
Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.