Horizon League hoops tourneys likely staying in Detroit, with changes

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

All signs point to the Horizon League basketball tournaments — men's and women's — returning to Little Caesars Arena next year, albeit under a condensed schedule.

Jon LeCrone, commissioner of the Horizon League, told The News on Tuesday that talks are underway with Olympia Entertainment, 313 Presents and the 10 member schools about how best to make the tournaments and schedules work for all parties involved.

Wright State's Loudon Love celebrates the team's 74-57 win over Cleveland State in last season's Horizon League tournament championship at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

All proposals almost certainly include bracket alterations.

"It has to work for everyone," LeCrone said after meeting Tuesday with Olympia officials in Detroit. "There's nothing definitive at this point."

The Horizon League men's tournament has been held in Detroit the past three years, the first two at Joe Louis Arena, and this year at LCA. The women have been in Detroit for two years. The men are operating on a five-year contract that included an opt-out after the just-completed Year 3. The women are operating on a year-to-year basis.

The past two tournaments have required five days of competition, and an extra day of arena blackout, before the tournament — for logistics, such as setup, practice, pre-tournament media hits, etc.

That was feasible at Joe Louis Arena, where only the Red Wings played. It puts added stress on the folks at LCA, where the Red Wings and Pistons play. LCA also is the premier concert venue in the area.

This past year's tournaments ran from Friday, March 2, through Tuesday, March 6. It's a near-lock the tournament, at least the portion held at LCA, won't run that long anymore.

"I would say that's unlikely," said LeCrone, who also met with Oakland president Ora Hirsch Pescovitz during his visit to town Tuesday.

More: College notes: Swan song for Oakland-MSU hoops?

While Motor City Madness is the marquee event for the Horizon League, it can't possibly be as high of a priority for Olympia and 313 Presents, given the attendance figures.

The first year, at JLA, attendance was 20,908 for nine games. In Year 2, attendance was 29,240, for twice as many games — as the women's tournament joined the fray. This past year, attendance was 30,288, a modest jump, given the allure of a new arena.

This past year, that averaged out to 6,058 fans a day for a state-of-the-art arena that seats more than 20,000 for basketball games — and that attendance figure includes ticket lots each university was required to purchase. The upper deck of LCA was curtained off. It hasn't helped that in the three years in Detroit, Oakland and Detroit Mercy have combined to go 2-6 and haven't made a championship game. LeCrone has repeatedly said the success of the tournament isn't on the shoulders of Detroit and Oakland, but officials from each school have said otherwise.

"I like to see people turning on ESPN and seeing a lot of the people at the game," Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, told The News in March.

"It starts to build a cache that we haven't found yet."

On its website, the Horizon League lists specific dates and sites for all of its championships for the 2018-19 season, with the exception of basketball, which still is designated TBD.

Currently, LCA has open dates from Friday, March 1, through Wednesday, March 6, as the Red Wings play on the road twice during that span. The 2018-19 Pistons schedule hasn't yet been released. There are no concerts or special events planned, as of yet, for that span of dates.

Odds are, though, the Horizon League only will get two or three of those dates for competition.

That means the tournaments will either have to start with first-round games at campus sites before moving to LCA — think the Mid-American Conference tournament, which starts at campus sites before moving to Cleveland for the quarters, semis and championship — or the Horizon League could take the drastic step of only bringing the top eight of its 10 teams in the regular-season standings to the tournament. That, though, would seem to go against the spirit of March Madness, known and loved for upsets, like in the 2017 Horizon League tournament, when the Nos. 9 and 10 seeds stunned Nos. 1 and 2; a 10 seed, Milwaukee, made the final that year.

"All options are on the table," said LeCrone, who is heavily involved in brainstorming, along with the league's council, which includes 10 athletic directors and a student representative. 

Date changes for the tournament also are being considered, LeCrone said, but any alterations there would also have to meet the needs of the league's television partner, ESPN. Its traditional Tuesday finish gives the league more visibility, in prime time, as opposed to a Saturday or Sunday, when so many other leagues are vying for TV viewers.

It's not yet clear when a final decision will made regarding changes to 2019 Motor City Madness. It announcing a revised bracket last year, Olympia issued a press release in July.

Long-term, LeCrone continues to reiterate that the Horizon League wants to stay in Detroit, grow and build something big, like Arch Madness in St. Louis, the longtime home of the Missouri Valley Conference basketball tournament.