Moving Horizon League tourney to Detroit is all about branding

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Detroit coach Ray McCallum

Detroit — For the first time in the conference's history, the Horizon League men's basketball tournament is heading to Detroit.

Olympia Entertainment announced Thursday afternoon that it has signed a five-year contract with the Horizon League to host the tournament, starting in 2016.

The tournament will be at Joe Louis Arena the first two years, and then will move to the Red Wings' new, $450-million arena, starting in 2018.

"We're a league that had a team in the national championship game twice in the last decade (Butler, 2010 and 2011)," said Greg Kampe, head coach at Oakland University. "Instead of just sitting back and saying that, we need to keep making the league better.

"This is gonna make it exciting, it's gonna make it a destination place for recruits, it serves the whole league."

The Horizon League held its men's basketball tournament at a single site from 1980 to 2002, then in 2003, a system was put in place that had the opening-round games played on campus sites, then the later rounds at the site of the highest seed remaining.

If the highest seed happened to lose before the championship game, the final was moved to the site of the next-highest seed, as it did in 2004 and 2014.

The Detroit plan puts the whole tournament, including opening-round games, in the city, a single site, regardless if Oakland or Detroit happen to be eliminated before the championship game.

Therefore, this could give the tournament a bigger spotlight, in a bigger media market than, say, Valparaiso. That's welcomed news for ESPN, which retains the rights to broadcast the championship game — and figures to be much more likely to put the final on ESPN rather than ESPN2 if there's not a bunch of empty seats, like there often is when the game is held at a campus site.

"We want to provide a great tournament experience for all of our key constituents — student-athletes, coaches, administrators and fans," Jon LeCrone, Horizon League commissioner, said in a statement. "We are excited to work with Olympia and our institutions on that goal."

Said Tom Wilson, Olympia Entertainment president, also in a statement: "We look forward to providing an outstanding and memorable tournament experience for the schools, their fans and all participating student-athletes."

The Horizon League has worked tirelessly to brand itself — a tall order, given its status as a "mid-major."

This plan should help. The tournament will kick off with a celebratory event for participating teams and fan-participant events, and Detroit now becomes a preferred destination in which to host future Horizon League meetings and media days.

Kampe said branding is huge for the conference, and every school in the conference. Marketing was a big reason, for instance, why Kampe and Oakland installed a black-top basketball court for next season.

It looks different, and slick, and thus drew media attention that's otherwise just not there.

The hope for the conference is a Detroit tournament could help in similar fashion.

"You have to stay relevant and change in this world," Kampe said. "The world is changing fast, with social media and other things. If you don't stay up with it, you're gonna fall to the side."

Oakland never has won the Horizon League men's tournament — it just joined the conference three years ago — and Detroit hasn't won it since 2012.

Moving the Horizon League tournament to the schools' backyard could put additional pressure on the schools to perform, but Kampe said that's something that's more media-driven than anything.

After all, he said, there's always pressure at a mid-major.

"There's pressure on me every day in this job. There's pressure on me right now to get the next recruit, there's pressure on me to win the opening game," Kampe said. "We embrace it. It's really exciting."

Detroit head coach Ray McCallum didn't immediately return a phone call from The News.

The Horizon League women's basketball tournament will continue to follow the format of the men's previous tournaments — campus sites for the opening round, then the highest remaining seed for the remaining rounds.