Motor City 'Sadness': Horizon League pulls plug on hoops tourneys in Detroit

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Wright State players celebrate their win against Cleveland State in the championship game of the 2018 Horizon League tournament in Detroit.

Detroit — It'll be four-and-out for Motor City Madness.

The Horizon League announced Friday, in a widely expected move, that its men's and women's basketball tournaments are leaving Detroit following the games at Little Caesars Arena in March.

The league will relocate the tournament's semifinal and championship games to Indianapolis, home of the league offices, in 2020, the start of a three-year contract.

"Indianapolis is a destination city in the middle of our footprint and has a proven track record of success," said Jon LeCrone, commissioner of the 10-school league which most recently added IUPUI, in Indianapolis.

"We look forward to working with Indianapolis to produce a first-class and memorable experience for our student-athletes, coaches and fans."

The Horizon League had high hopes for its postseason tournaments in Detroit, signing a five-year contract — with an opt-out after three years — for the men's tournament. It added the women's tournament a year later, on a year-to-year basis.

After Year 3, the first at new LCA following two years at Joe Louis Arena, the Horizon League announced for the upcoming fourth year only the semifinal and championship games would take place at heavily booked LCA. That was a frank admission that Detroit probably wasn't going to be the host city much longer. Previously, all tournament games were played in Detroit; this March, the opening games will be on campus sites.

LeCrone initially envisioned Detroit turning into a host city like St. Louis is for the Missouri Valley Conference, with its popular "Arch Madness."

It never happened. Total attendance in Year 1, when it was just the men's tournament, was 20,908, for nine games; in Year 21, it was 29,240 for 18 games, with the addition of the women's tournament. Last year, attendance was 30,288. Those attendance figures included blocks of tickets each school was required to purchase, as well as freebies. Poor showings by local men's teams Oakland and Detroit Mercy didn't help.

There was cautious hope among Horizon League officials that the new, state-of-the-art arena would boost attendance in 2018, but it was the tiniest of bumps, not nearly strong enough to justify booking six days at LCA, which houses the Red Wings and Pistons and is the area's preferred concert venue.

LeCrone admitted as much in September, telling The News, "Six days in Detroit, particularly with Little Caesars Arena, that's a lot to ask for both partners."

Olympia Entertainment and 313 Presents and the Big Ten also have their eyes on possibly bringing that conference's men's tournament to Detroit at some point as early as 2023. The Big Ten is in Chicago this year and 2021, and Indianapolis in 2020 and 2022, and not committed beyond that.

This year's Horizon League tournaments start March 5-6 with campus-site games for the top eight teams in the regular-season standings — that's also new this year; the bottom two teams won't participate in postseason play — with the semifinal and final March 11-12 at LCA. Those tickets go on sale starting Feb. 1.

Starting in 2020, the Horizon League semifinals and championship games will be at 6,800-seat Indiana Farmers Coliseum, located at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. That's the home arena for IUPUI. Indianapolis emerged as the winner following a six-month process that included multiple finalist cities.

"We have enjoyed a great partnership with Olympia Entertainment and 313 Presents and look forward to an incredible event in a world-class arena in March," LeCrone said.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984