IUPUI joins Horizon, may fight Detroit for tourneys

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The Horizon League acted swiftly and decisively — if not exactly splashy — in tapping IUPUI to replace Valparaiso, keeping its membership at an ideal 10 institutions.

IUPUI officially accepted membership Wednesday, starting with the 2017-18 season. The News first reported the invitation, as well as the anticipated acceptance.

Valparaiso is moving to the Missouri Valley Conference, also starting this season.

“It’s a very sensible move, based off a great city and an emerging athletics brand and insitution that’s growing, in a market that is substantial,” Oakland athletic director Jeff Konya said. “I think our student-athletes are going to find first-class facilities when they compete at IUPUI, and we’re looking forward to taking trips down there.”

IUPUI brings seven sanctioned men’s programs, nine women’s programs and a co-ed cheerleading team to the Horizon League, which wanted to find a new member that could start as soon as possible.

League athletic directors were presented last week with nine- and 10-member scheduling scenarios, and everyone agreed things are cleaner and more manageable with 10 teams.

IUPUI’s addition also keeps the Horizon League with a presence in the state that’s home to the league offices.

That it’s Indianapolis is an added bonus, bringing another top-30 United States media market to the league, which has schools in six adjoining states, including Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Wisconsin. The Horizon League already has a presence in big media markets like Chicago (Illinois-Chicago) and Detroit (Detroit Mercy, Oakland).

Konya said the addition of IUPUI will increase its television footprint to nearly 11 million households with traditional cable. The Horizon League has a long-standing contract with ESPN for its men’s basketball.

Commissioner Jonathan B. LeCrone told The News earlier this month this is the first step in the Horizon League’s ambitious expansion plan, which could someday see the league reach 14 or even 16 members, and possibly grow well outside of its current region — likely even to the West Coast.

“Their addition solidifies our broad community partnerships in Indianapolis and is the right school at the right time,” LeCrone said in a statement.

IUPUI wasn’t close to the sexiest name rumored to be in the mix — Robert Morris, Belmont, Fort Wayne and Grand Canyon in Phoenix were far more popular with fans — it’s just the start of a long-term plan, anyway. The league’s main priority is men’s basketball, and IUPUI doesn’t add much cache there, having made one NCAA Tournament ever. But again, the school long has been willing, and the Horizon League finally had the right opening at the right time to extend the invitation.

Future members almost certainly will have more successful men’s basketball histories.

“They’re a welcome addition,” said Robert Vowels, Detroit Mercy athletic director. “Academically and athletically, they’re a fit — as well as geographically.”

IUPUI arrives from the Summit League, the same league Oakland departed in joining the Horizon League in 2013. The Summit League is down to eight members until North Dakota joins for the 2018-19 season.

Adding Indianapolis to the league also gives LeCrone and Co. the option to stage its premier event, the men’s and basketball tournaments, in the centrally located city down the road, if things don’t pan out in Detroit.

The men’s tournament is entering Year 3 in Detroit, and the first year at new Little Caesars Arena. It’s a five-year deal, though the league and Olympia Entertainment have an opt-out after next year. The women’s tournament is on a year-to-year agreement.

Officials certainly will be watching attendance numbers closely next year at LCA. The tournaments, dubbed “Motor City Madness,” sold 29,240 tickets in 2016 for 18 games over five days (nine men’s, nine women’s), and sold 20,908 in 2015 for nine games (all men’s). There was no local team in the championship game either year, which hurt the bottom line. The Big Ten also has expressed interest in eventually bringing its men's tournament to LCA, which could bump the Horizon League.

Indianapolis, meanwhile, long has been a popular host for marquee college events, including the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament and the Big Ten football championship, and is more centrally located than Detroit.

“That thought’s never crossed my mind. My concern is Oakland winning a game in Little Caesars Arena this year,” said Oakland men’s coach Greg Kampe, whose team has been upset in its first game of the Horizon League tournament each of the two years at Joe Louis Arena. “What happens in the future, we’ll lace up our tennies and go play wherever they tell us to do it.”

Said Vowels of Detroit potentially losing the tournaments to Indianapolis: “Not at this time. Olympia’s all in.” That said, he acknowledged ticket sales must improve.

LeCrone and assistant commissioner Julie Roe Lach told The News this spring that the league is thinking long-term when it comes to staging its basketball tournaments in Detroit.


■ Cleveland State (since 1994)

■ Detroit Mercy (1980)

■ Green Bay (1994)

■ Milwaukee (1994)

■ Northern Kentucky (2015)

■ Oakland (2013)

■ Illinois-Chicago (1994)

■ Wright State (1994)

■ Youngstown State (2001)

■ IUPUI (2017)