Horizon League tourney could leave Detroit after 2018

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
The Horizon League hosted its men's basketball tournament at Joe Louis Arena the past two years.

Detroit — Horizon League and Olympia Entertainment officials are being blunt about the college basketball tournament's long-term potential 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 being at Joe Louis Arena.

The 2018 tournament will be the first at new Little Caesars Arena.

The contract is for five years, but there is an opt-out following this upcoming third 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.

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That's the same setup set planned for 2018, from 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  and perhaps a significant one, given the tournament's relocation to a new, state-of-the-art building that's already drawing rave reviews locally and nationally.

It would help attendance matters, of course, if Oakland and Detroit Mercy made prolonged runs for once, instead of suffering quick  and in Oakland's case, shocking  early round exits. Even Wilson admitted that would help matters, though LeCrone has told The News on multiple occasions that the tournament's future doesn't rest on the shoulders of Oakland and Detroit, and it would be unfair to suggest as much. While many of the Horizon League championships have designated host schools, the basketball tournaments are considered hosted by the Horizon League, not Oakland or Detroit.

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.

Having one pro team on the road for a week can be accommodated, as it was at The Joe. Having two is much trickier, especially when that means that they'd both have to be home at the same time before and after the tournament, creating a scheduling cluster there, too.

"We do have different variables now," Wilson said. "With two organizations that are trying to get dates, weekend dates."

One solution for beyond 2018 could be removing the women's tournament from the equation, which would cut the days down. LeCrone isn't entertaining that idea publicly; he has said he likes having both men's and women's together, and the women's coaches really enjoyed the experience and exposure that came with playing at the same site of the men's tournament last year. Previously, the women’s tournament was held at the campus site of the top seed, almost always Green Bay in recent years.

If Detroit isn't viable beyond 2018, watch for Indianapolis to jump into the fray, especially now that the league has added IUPUI as its 10th conference member, replacing Valparaiso. Indianapolis also is home to the Horizon League offices, and is no stranger to hosting college tournaments. The Big Ten has been a fixture there for years.

Speaking of the Big Ten, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has talked about the potential for LCA to eventually host the Big Ten tournament, so that could be a factor in the Horizon League’s future, as well. Obviously, the Big Ten would be more appealing to Olympia, though the Big Ten is booked through 2022, in New York in 2018, and then again alternating between Chicago and Indianapolis from 2019-22.

For now, though, LeCrone and the Horizon League are focusing only on Detroit  which, last year, included each out-of-state team taking part in community activities when it traveled to Metro Detroit to play Oakland or Detroit. LeCrone calls that "building equity" in the city.

"I really do consider Detroit the centerpiece of Horizon League basketball," said LeCrone, who noted along with Wilson that the two parties sit down after every year to discuss challenges and ways to improve "It's becoming the home of Horizon League basketball, and that's important to us."