Horizon League wants to stay in Detroit, but it’s a tough sell
Detroit – During the Horizon League men's championship game at Little Caesars Arena on Tuesday night, the commissioner sat courtside, side by side with the president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment.
It's unclear what they talked about that night.
But it's crystal clear what they'll be talking about in the weeks and months to come – and that's the viability of keeping the tournaments, men's and women's, in Detroit for at least another year, let alone the duration of a five-year contract that just saw the completion of Year 3.
Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone wants to stay here. So does every player or coach (man or woman) you talk to.
Deep down, Tom Wilson, the Olympia chief, almost certainly wants to keep it, too. But he's a bottom-line guy, and the bottom line is, the Horizon League tournament has yet to draw anywhere close to the fans it had hoped when it first brought the entire men's tournament here in 2016, and added the women's tournament in 2017.
"I like to see people turning on ESPN and seeing a lot of the people at the game," Wilson said the other day, in the underbelly of LCA.
"It starts to build a cache that we haven't found yet."
The most recent ticket-sale report said numbers were up from a year ago, though it's unclear by how much. A final report is to be released by the Horizon League next week.
But eyes don't lie, and the Horizon League didn't come to close to packing the place – even the reconfigured place, which included a curtained-off upper bowl. Even for the hometown team with the biggest fan base, Oakland, which played two games, attendance wasn't spectacular – saying as much was coach Greg Kampe, a big booster for the tournament remaining here and a man who puts tremendous amount of pressure on himself to help drive the bottom line. Each of Oakland's games was down at least slightly from the some 8,000 that watched its one tournament game at Joe Louis Arena last year, and well down from LCA's one true sellout to date – the December Michigan State-Oakland basketball game.
And even when the official attendance numbers are released – and a bump is anticipated, from 29,240 tickets sold last year and 20,908 in Year 1 – one would be wise to view them with some skepticism, since it is known that the Horizon League, despite modest get-in prices as low as $15 for an all-day pass and $45 for an every-day, all-sessions pass, provided free admission to Detroit Public School students for at least three days, welcomed several school children to the women's championship game, and required each of the 10 member institutions to purchase ticket blocks.
While the original contract for "Motor City Madness" runs through 2020, Olympia Entertainment has an opt-out available after this year's men's tournament concluded Tuesday. The women's tournament operates on a year-to-year basis.
While neither Wilson nor LeCrone would tip their hand this week on which way things might go, it's obvious change is possible, if not probable, even if it means the tournament or tournaments aren't booted from the arena altogether.
"It's gotta work for our partners. It works pretty well for us, but it's gotta work for our partners," LeCrone said. "If that means adjustments are necessary, we're going to talk about that.
"I like it. Now, it creates logistical problems. Our partners have been nice enough to give us five dates. We're going to have to think about that.
“That puts pressure on the Red Wings, that puts pressure on the Pistons."
SEARCH FOR WINNING FORMULA
There's no one blueprint for how to hold a mid-major basketball tournament. There are 25 mid-major conferences in Division I, and there a variety of formats used. And there often is change from year to year, every commissioner searching for that winning formula.
The Horizon League, which has held a tournament since 1980, when it was known as the unbelievably literal Midwestern City Conference, has toyed with a number of formats over the years. It's tried other "permanent" homes like the since-demolished Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. It's tried holding entire tournaments at predetermined and rotating campus sites. It's tried hybrids, like holding opening games at campus sites, then moving the rest of the tournament to singular campus sites, usually the highest remaining seed.
The appeal of holding a tournament at a single, established site is obvious. Fans can plan well in advance, knowing for months where the entire tournament will be held.
"You have to be in a place long enough where people, it's kind of on the calendar," LeCrone said.
"It's on the community calendar."
Two mid-major conferences seem to have found the right fit.
The Missouri Valley Conference and the Mid-American Conference are the only two mid-majors that have held their basketball tournaments in the same location since 2000 – the Missouri Valley in St. Louis ("Arch Madness”) since 1991, and the MAC in Cleveland since 2000, and even the MAC doesn't hold its entire tournament there. The opening-round games are held at campus sites, with the tournament shifting to Cleveland for the final three rounds.
Both work for a variety of reasons.
For starters, both have been given the gift that is time. It takes time to build what LeCrone calls community "equity" – something he stresses every chance he gets, and a big reason why when each of the Horizon League teams are making their swing through Metro Detroit during the regular season, to play Oakland and Detroit Mercy, they all hold community-service events to help generate interest.
The Missouri Valley and MAC championship games also are played on the weekend – the MAC's on a Saturday, the Missouri Valley's on a Sunday, making for better attendance. The Horizon League plays its semifinals on a Monday and its final on a Tuesday, to appease the almighty ESPN, while inconveniencing fans.
Meanwhile, the Missouri Valley works because of its central location, while the MAC works because half of its 12-university membership is from the state of Ohio.
Detroit isn't central for all Horizon League teams – while it's nice that Oakland and Detroit Mercy fans can get to LCA in a matter of minutes, Green Bay fans, for instance, face a drive of eight hours, or more if the weather is poor.
Major conferences can get away with out-of-the-way conference tournaments, as evidenced by the Big Ten's swing through New York last week – a decision for which commissioner Jim Delany took some serious heat, especially when you could get into the two Wednesday games for $1.50. But then the semifinals and final atmospheres were absolutely electric.
Mid-major conferences have to give more weight to location.
Indianapolis, the home city of the Horizon League and the home of its newest member, IUPUI, would be central, and certainly would be a consideration for relocation should Olympia decide to move on.
And yet, interestingly, you don't hear many complaints from the Green Bay athletes, most notably the women's team, which has dominated the Horizon League for more than two decades, winning 17 of the last 21 tournament titles – and under the old format, had the great pleasure of hosting championship games and pack the 4,000-seat Kress Events Center.
"It's like an NCAA Tournament, the bright lights and busses in buildings and a lot of cameras, the kids just feel really special," said Kevin Borseth, Green Bay's women's coach. "It's just absolutely second to none. I really like it, I really do. I hope they keep us."
That's the popular sentiment among just about any coach, player or university administrator you came in contact with in the last week at LCA. One men's coach, who's been around, called LCA a top-three venue in the United States, with Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Madison Square Garden in New York. LeCrone said he's hard-pressed to think of a better building than the brand-new LCA.
It's high praise, to be sure.
It's also a reason for LCA to move on – it has bigger fish to accommodate than the Horizon League.
No timetable has been set for a final decision from Olympia. LeCrone and Wilson expect to talk sooner rather than later, but regardless of when a final decision is made, the Horizon League is good at changing courses in a hurry, when needed, often with contingencies long in place. Last May, Valparaiso left the league. In June, the Horizon League admitted IUPUI, which began competing in August.
TOUGH TO NAVIGATE
Only five mid-major conferences host basketball tournaments at major professional sports arenas – the same number, by the way, that hold tournaments at campus sites.
And only two hold tournaments at major pro sports arenas that also house multiple pro teams: The Horizon League and the Atlantic-10, which was at Washington's Capital One Arena, the home of the NHL's Capitals and the NBA's Wizards, this year, and moves back next year for another three-year run Barclays, which houses the NBA's Nets and the NHL's Islanders.
The Horizon League put less stress on Olympia when it was at The Joe, because The Joe only housed one team, the Wings, and wasn't considered the area's premier concert venue as LCA now is known. That's because The Palace was still open in Auburn Hills, and also housing the Pistons.
The scheduling is much trickier to navigate now. Olympia had to give up six days for the Horizon League – a workout day, then five days for competition.
So while coaches like Oakland women's coach Jeff Tungate will say, "This tournament has to stay here, it's the best experience our kids have ever had," it's a mighty tough sell.
The women's Horizon League tournament's future here is significantly more dicey than the men's, and that was obvious when the Horizon League and Olympia only struck a year-to-year agreement.
LeCrone wants both the men and women at one site, because the optics are good – the men cheering for the women, and vice versa. Really, it creates the illusion of more fan interest. Truth be told, the women might be better off going to a predetermined campus site, like Green Bay, a town that supports two things: Packers football and women's hoops.
Most believe that, in some form or fashion, Olympia will see the five-year men's deal to the finish line – but much beyond that, it becomes an even tougher sales pitch, especially when the Big Ten tournament becomes available after 2022. LCA brass also have their eyes on more marquee events, such as annual NCAA Tournament games, and the interest there is plenty mutual, with the NCAA awarding first- and second-round games to LCA for this year, even before the building opened.
The double-hoops booking this month limited the Red Wings to one home game in the first 19 days of March, and the Pistons to two in the first 22 days of March, a month typically critical for NBA and NHL teams’ playoff push. That scheduling is not sustainable if profit margins for non-Red Wings and Pistons events are slim at best, and nonexistent at worst. You don’t win Monopoly trading Boardwalk for Baltic Avenue.
In the short-term, even if the Horizon League's men's tournament stays in Detroit for the next two years, it's very likely it'll be under a different format that won't require so many dates.
Asked about replicating the MAC format – opening games on campus sites, and maybe the rest in Detroit – LeCrone nodded his head, much more open to that idea than, say, moving back to campus sites or shrinking the size of the bracket, which would mean leaving out lower seeds. That's not likely to happen, especially since a 10 seed (Milwaukee) made the championship game two years ago, and an 8 (Cleveland State) this year.
"Sure, absolutely," LeCrone said when asked about the possibility of a MAC carbon copy – which could cut down the blackout dates at LCA from six to as few as four, or even three if the league decided it could hold the first two rounds on campuses and only the semifinals and final at LCA.
"We might have to change formats, we might have to change days. I think we're pretty nimble.
"I don't think there's anything we can't overcome."