Horizon League and Olympia Entertainment officials are being blunt about the long-term potential for the league’s college basketball tournament in Detroit.
“I think this is a critical year for us,” Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone said.
The Horizon League is entering Year 3 of holding its March tournament in Detroit. The first two years were held at Joe Louis Arena. The 2018 men’s and women’s tournaments will be the first at new Little Caesars Arena.
The contract is for five years, but there is an opt-out following this year.
“We really wanted to do it for five years, but we wanted to get into this building,” LeCrone said last week at the Horizon League’s media days at LCA. “We wanted to get through the two at The Joe, which I thought were really good, but also to open up college basketball here.
“So we’ll have a conversation about what the future might hold after this event.”
Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, said the decision whether to continue beyond 2018 will be collaborative, and won’t be tied to any specific numbers — like attendance or profits, but rather, he said, progress.
The Horizon League tournament did see progress from Year 1 to Year 2, jumping from 20,908 tickets sold in the inaugural year to 29,240 in the second.
That said, there were twice as many games for the second year, as the women’s tournament was brought to Detroit for the first time, and on a year-to-year basis. This year’s tournament ran five days, from Friday to Tuesday.
That’s the same setup set planned for 2018, March 2-6.
“They’ve been very realistic in terms of how the attendance has gone and what their hopes are,” Wilson said. “We went in with our eyes wide open.
“We have to be honest with ourselves. Is this working? Is this growing. Jon and the league have been really good about admitting the challenges we have.”
Obviously, Horizon League officials know they need better attendance, and they expect to see a bump — perhaps a significant one, given the tournament’s relocation to a new, state-of-the-art building that’s already drawing rave reviews.
It would help attendance matters, of course, if Oakland and Detroit Mercy made prolonged runs for once, instead of suffering quick — and in the case of Oakland, pretty shocking — early round exits.
There’s also a factor that wasn’t in play at The Joe, and that’s the addition of the Pistons as a resident to LCA. The Red Wings and Pistons are co-tenants, meaning dates are tougher to come by — especially a five-day blackout that could extend to six or seven, when you consider the time it takes to set up the Horizon League tournament infrastructure and then take it down.
“We do have different variables now,” Wilson said.
“With two organizations that are trying to get dates, weekend dates.”