Horizon League tourneys staying in Detroit, under condensed schedule

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Wright State players celebrate their win over Cleveland State in the Horizon League men's championship game in 2018.

The Horizon League men's and women's basketball tournaments will return to Detroit for a fourth year in 2019, but under a heavily condensed schedule, the league announced Tuesday.

Rather than holding all tournament games in Detroit, the first-round games, or quarterfinals, will be held on campus sites March 5-6, with only the semifinals and championship games to be played at Little Caesars Arena, on March 11-12.

Additionally, only the top eight teams in the regular-season standings will be eligible for the tournament. In previous years, all 10 teams have made the field.

Meanwhile, there's been no decision yet on where the tournament will be held from 2020 and beyond.

"We're extraordinarily happy that we're coming back to Detroit, which is where we always wanted to be," Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone told The News on Tuesday. "It's gonna be different, but it's gonna be great.

"We've learned a whole lot, and we think this is a better student-athlete experience and it's a better relationship for both sides of the partnership."

The Horizon League men's tournament first was held in Detroit, at Joe Louis Arena, in 2016, with the women's tournament arriving in 2017. The tournaments moved to brand-new LCA in 2018.

The last two years, the city of Detroit has hosted 18 Horizon League tournament games. Next year, that number will be down to six — the reality of trying to squeeze into a jam-packed LCA schedule, which includes the Red Wings, Pistons and concerts.

In the quarterfinals, the highest-seeded team will host the game, which LeCrone believes will lead to better attendance than the league saw in early round games staged in Detroit.

"Six days in Detroit, particularly with Little Caesars Arena, that's a lot to ask for both partners," LeCrone said, speaking of the Horizon League and 313 Presents and Olympia Entertainment. "And that's a lot to ask from our fans. Even as great as Detroit is, it's a lot to ask them to come up Thursday or Friday and stay through Tuesday. No. 2, it was a lot to ask from Olympia."

More:Horizon League wants to stay in Detroit, but it's a tough sell

More:Complete coverage of 2018 Horizon League tournaments

When the Horizon League signed on to bring the men's tournament, or "Motor City Madness," to Detroit in 2016, it was under a five-year deal, with an opt-out after Year 3. The women's tournament has been on a year-to-year agreement.

This past year was Year 3 for the men, and after it was over, LeCrone and officials from 313 Presents and Olympia, including Tom Wilson, started discussing the partnership's future.

After multiple discussions between the parties, and between LeCrone and the league's coaches and athletic directors, they settled on this new format for 2019 — which also will be the final year of the current agreement, shortening the original pact by a year.

That doesn't definitively mean Detroit won't continue to host beyond 2019, LeCrone said. Attendance, as always, will play a factor in that decision. Total attendance in Year 1 was 20,908, for nine games; in Year 2, it was 29,240 for 18 games. This past year, it was 30,288.

"Our total focus is on '19. We want to use this as an experiment," he said. "After we get through this year and evaluate it along the lines of both sides of the partnership, then we'll think about the future. Certainly, right now, our focus is to make this work, and then we'll have another conversation.

"Honestly, the hope is that the community of Detroit is still interested in our tournament for the future and, who knows, other communities might be interested as well. Wherever the tournament ends up, it'll be better for both partners. And that could be Detroit."

The 2019 women's championship game will be at noon, with the men at 7, on either ESPN or ESPN2.