LCA had NCAA jumping into Detroit with both feet

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — A large membership association holds an annual sports event that occupies much of the attention of the country for weeks.

Why not in our city?

It takes a venue worthy of the event, people to organize it and a local member to host it.

When Olympia Entertainment touted the development of Little Caesars Arena around the country four years ago, before breaking ground, the NCAA leapt at the opportunity.

“I think they were excited about taking it to the new Detroit arena,” said Dan Gavitt, the vice-president for basketball operations for the NCAA, in announcing the site.

The Detroit Sports Commission, having helped organize the 2010 Frozen Four and the first and second rounds of the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament up in Oakland County, provided the intercollegiate athletic association with a known organizing body.

The University of Detroit-Mercy Athletic Department is the host member.

“We’re talking about a three-headed monster here,” said Kris Smith, director of the Detroit Sports Commission.

“As the sports commission, we were able to coordinate the bid process, ourselves. But we could not have done it, in any way, form or fashion, without Olympia having the building and their staff, and the University of Detroit-Mercy as our host institution also providing the expertise for us to be able to do this.”

Little Caesars Arena is a key ingredient for landing a portion of “March Madness,” the $1 billion cash cow that finances 90 percent of all NCAA activity, and is the model for sports, from college football to NASCAR, seeking to invigorate their championships with the drama of tournament play.

“We did need the building, to get this in the city,” Smith said. “Obviously, the Palace of Auburn Hills did host the tournament in 2013.

“But in order for the first and second rounds, anything short of the Final Four, to be hosted inside the city of Detroit, you did need a state of the art facility,” said the former college football player, now in his first year as director of the commission.

“While Joe Louis Arena was a wonderful place, I always had a good time inside of Joe Louis, the NCAA was looking for a Little Caesars Arena type experience.

“So, the ability of the Ilitch family to bring that to bear in the city, it really paid dividends for us.”

As the local officials host the first two rounds of the 2018 tournament, they add to a resume of major events that includes everything from a Super Bowl to seven NCAA championships for non-major sports.

They anticipate the shimmering new arena will provide the site for drafts in the major professional leagues and for all-star games and associated hoopla in the NBA and NHL.

The willingness of the NCAA to award opening rounds of the 2018 tournament to the city demonstrates the national pull of the Ilitch organization.

“It’s pretty much unheard of,” said Tom Wilson, the president of Olympia Entertainment, about receiving NCAA approval without breaking ground.

“And then we followed up with three more events.”

The NCAA announced the 2020 Men’s Ice Hockey Frozen Four, the 2021 Men’s First and Second Round Basketball and the 2022 Men’s Wrestling Championship will all occur in Little Caesars Arena.

“That’s all before we opened our doors,” Wilson said. “That’s never happened in the history of the NCAA.

“That says great things about this building, but even more about the renaissance of the city that you would commit that far out to that level and magnitude of contests and tournaments.

“So, we take great pride in the fact that it is here.”

The local member institutions are critical to the process of siting the events.

Michigan State will host the 2020 Frozen Four, Detroit-Mercy and Oakland University will host a regional, first two rounds of the 2021 tournament and Michigan the 2022 wrestling championships.

“The NCAA is a membership association,” Smith said. “You have to have a member institution involved.

“What athletic director Robert Vowels has been able to do with the athletic department over at University of Detroit-Mercy, really leading the game management operation of this event, for handling the logistics of what we’ve seen up to this point and what we’ll see throughout the event, has been phenomenal.”

Vowels and university officials accompanied the sports commission to meet the NCAA as part of the bidding process.

“You have to put out a bid, you have to go before the NCAA committees and you’re actually just talking about the city, the attributes of Detroit and the attributes of the arena,” Vowels said.

“We were talking about something that was going to happen. It wasn’t built yet. It was a unique way to sell an event.”