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Horizon: Tourney’s success isn’t on OU, UDM shoulders

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Early exits by the Detroit Mercy and Oakland men’s basketball teams in the Horizon League tournament had officials from both schools lamenting yet another missed opportunity to sell significantly more tickets and, in doing so, earn the league thousands more dollars.

But Horizon League officials are adamant that neither university should feel the heat to perform well on the court just because the tournament is being played in what, essentially, amounts to their backyard.

“It’s a totally shared responsibility. It’s a league tournament,” commissioner Jonathan B. LeCrone said Sunday in an interview with The Detroit News. “I understand and empathize with how Detroit and Oakland probably feel a little bit more sense of ownership, but it’s not just on their shoulders. That’s not fair for them.

“They’re just part of the team. I’m glad they feel a sense of ownership, but it’s a league tournament. It’s not Detroit’s and Oakland’s tournament.”

In separate interviews this weekend, Detroit Mercy athletic director Robert Vowels and Oakland coach Greg Kampe acknowledged the obvious — the tournament’s bottom line, at least in terms of ticket sales, will be better the more games the Titans and Grizzlies play.

This year, they played one each, both losing, top-seeded Oakland’s being the real stunner. Last year, they played three games total, again just one for Oakland, which was seeded second.

Both years, Oakland, with a substantial and swelling local fan base, was widely expected to make the league’s championship game.

“We weren’t disappointed with an outcome,” LeCrone said of Oakland’s buzzer-beating loss to Youngstown State on Saturday night. “We met as a staff and said, ‘That was great (the excitement and atmosphere). Nobody was pouting, nobody was glum, nobody had their lower lip stuck out because Oakland lost.

“I tell the staff all the time, what happens in the rectangle, we have no control over. We weren’t one bit disappointed, not a bit. We were actually energized. That’s what I didn’t want characterized, that we were disappointed. We weren’t.”

The Horizon League is in the second year of a five-year contract with Olympia Entertainment to hold the men’s tournament in Detroit. This is the last year for Joe Louis Arena; next year’s tournament will be at Little Caesars Arena.

The women’s tournament was added this year, and on a year-to-year basis. It will return to play at Little Caesars Arena next year, deputy commissioner Julie Roe Lach told The Detroit News.

The Horizon League has an opt-out of the contract after Year 3, and LeCrone said it will sit down with officials from Olympia in the future to discuss how things are progressing. LeCrone and Lach are excited about Year 2, noting ticket sales through three days are up.

Last year, through three days, there were 16,596 tickets sold. This year, there were 19,603 tickets sold. That’s an increase of a little over 3,000. Attendance for Day 1 was up slightly this year (5,247-5,468), with Detroit Mercy playing on Day 1 each of the years. Attendance for Day 2 was way up this year (8,481-4,792), with Oakland playing on Day 2 this year, Detroit Mercy on Day 2 last year, and four games this year to two last year. Attendance for Day 3 was well down this year (6,557-5,654), with Oakland playing on Day 2 last year, and, again, four games this year to two last year.

So neither LeCrone nor Lach dispute that ticket sales would be better with one and/or two local teams playing more games.

Still, they see growth in the numbers.

“It’s really a twofold approach,” Lach said. “One is to really build brand equity here in Detroit that goes well beyond the borders of the campus of Oakland and Detroit Mercy.”

The Horizon League is attempting to accomplish that in multiple ways. First, Olympia has assigned two ticket “experts” to each Horizon League university, orchestrating a marketing plan specific to each school. They are so invested, they basically become fans of the schools over time, serving as their greeters at the hotel, escorts at The Joe, and so on. Seventy fans from Illinois-Chicago hopped on an Amtrak to come to Saturday and Sunday’s games; Youngstown State is filling up and sending three buses for Sunday’s men’s game; Northern Kentucky organized events throughout Detroit, from Greektown to Corktown.

Then there’s this: Each time a Horizon League team came to Metro Detroit to play Detroit Mercy or Oakland during the regular season, they set up a community-outreach event. That’s helped the universities win over basketball fans, some whom have followed the teams’ progress as the season has gone on.

“What we’re really trying to build is a brand of the ‘Motor City Madness’ here in Detroit that extends across the city,” Lach said. “So that people are fans of the Horizon League and all the teams, and not just two.”

The ultimate goal probably would be something along the lines of “Arch Madness,” the Missouri Valley Conference’s tournament held each year in, appropriately, St. Louis. For more than a decade, the Missouri Valley Conference has been a big hit in the city, regularly topping 50,000 in total attendance.

The Horizon League certainly won’t hit that number this year, and, frankly, might have come close only if Oakland and Detroit Mercy somehow managed to play each other in both championship games. (Only the Detroit Mercy women are still playing among the four local teams.)

In last year’s men’s championship game, with top-seeded Valparaiso and second-seeded Oakland upset early, No. 3 seed Wright State and No. 4 seed Green Bay played in front of an announced crowd of 4,312. That was the smallest crowd Wright State played in front of in its four games last year, having beaten Detroit Mercy and Oakland in earlier rounds.

This year, the top three seeds on the men’s side have been eliminated, leaving a 4, 6, 9 and 10 — just fine with the Horizon League, with Lach saying, “It’s called ‘Motor City Madness,’ not ‘Motor City Sanity.’ ”

“It’s gonna take a while,” said LeCrone, the Horizon League commissioner since 1992. “But we’re building equity, and that’s what’s exciting about it.

“We’re making progress. We have pretty big goals. We’re not there yet.”