'Beyond compare': Horizon League commish raves about four-year run in Detroit

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Northern Kentucky's Drew McDonald holds up the net after winning the Horizon League championship Tuesday night.

The Horizon League initially committed to five years of playing its men's basketball tournament in Detroit, and hoped the run would last much longer.

It ended up lasting a year less.

Northern Kentucky's 77-66 victory over Wright State on Tuesday night at Little Caesars Arena capped off four years of what the league dubbed "Motor City Madness." Next year, the tournament moves to Indianapolis, on a three-year deal.

"We had hoped to be," Horizon League commissioner said this week, when asked if he had visions of a longer stay in Detroit. "But there were issues we had no control over."

That's not to say he didn't consider the shorter stay a success.

Especially from the student-athletes' perspective, getting to play in two rich buildings, first the historic Joe Louis Arena, and then the sparkling new LCA.

"From our athletes' (perspective), unbelievable. Think about it," LeCrone said. "These kids, probably their peak postseason experience for the majority of them. Very few are going to have a better experience than this. The two years at Joe Louis were great. We got to be a part of closing that down. Then we got to be a part of opening this up.

"The experience to play here for those young people was beyond compare."

The Horizon League signed on for a five-year run in Detroit, with an opt-out after three years. That was for the men's tournament.

The women's tournament joined the fray a year after the men, on a year-to-year basis.

A complicating factor in continuing, though, was the Detroit Pistons' decision to move from Auburn Hills to LCA. That created a scheduling nightmare for the Horizon League and the arena, which, of course, enjoys a much bigger profit from a Wings or Pistons game, or a concert. And for the league, the building rental fee, skyrocketing with the move from single-tenant Joe Louis to multi-purpose LCA, was an insurmountable hurdle.

"That just didn't work," LeConre said. "You know, financially, it was OK at Joe Louis, but when we moved here, expenses really shot up.

"It just became unaffordable for both sides."

The league and Olympia Entertainment compromised for this year, one last hurrah, with the league condensing its building use from nearly a week to just two days — for just the semifinal and championship games. In previous years, all tournament games were played at a single building; this year, first-round games were held at campus sites.

That worked out better, LeCrone said, leading to some big home crowds for those first quarterfinal games. (The host teams put up the expenses, and kept the revenues.)

In previous years, at Joe Louis then LCA, crowds were sparse for early round games, except for when Oakland and, to a lesser extent, Detroit Mercy were playing.

Attendance peaked at 30,288 for Year 3, up from 29,240 in Year 2 — the two years there was a full slate of men's and women's games. In Year 1, attendance was 20,908, for just nine men's games. All those attendance figures included large blocks that each school was under obligation to purchase. Attendance figures weren't immediately available for this year's men's and women's semifinals.

The crowd was quite good for Oakland's heartbreaking, last-second loss to Northern Kentucky late Monday night, but very sparse beyond that.

In the four years in Detroit, Oakland nor Detroit Mercy made the championship game on the men's side, which significantly dampened the ticket sales.

Olympia is a fan of big-time basketball, but is believed to have its eyes on the Big Ten men's tournament, which has open dates after 2022. Outgoing commissioner Jim Delany confirmed this week that Detroit would likely be in the mix.

Drew McDonald takes the winning shot against Oakland on Monday night.

LeCrone talked to The News about a number of topics. Among them:

►He confirmed Grand Rapids and Van Andel Arena was a finalist to host the tournaments beyond this year, before Indianapolis won the bid.

The deciding factors: Indy's reputation as a destination city, and Grand Rapids is a further drive from many of the schools, especially the southern-most schools.

"You know, Grand Rapids made it to, absolutely right to the finish line," LeCrone said. "They were sensational. They were right there. I love Grand Rapids. I love the building.

"They put together a great bid."

Fort Wayne, Milwaukee and Cincinnati were among other cities to submit bids. LeCrone said there were about 12 serious contenders in all. Indy won the final vote, 10-3.

►Some league coaches were concerned with Indianapolis' Farmers Coliseum winning the host bid, given that's the home arena for league member IUPUI. Some in the league were under the impression a home arena couldn't be considered to host the postseason tournaments, but that wasn't an official rule.

And LeCrone also dismissed those concerns, saying the arena actually is a community arena (it houses a minor-league hockey team), it isn't on IUPUI's campus, and IUPUI doesn't have home locker rooms there, nor does it practice there.

The court will be neutral colors, a loaner from the Indianapolis Pacers, LeCrone said.

Indianapolis also is the home city of the league offices.

►Before this season, the league made a controversial decision to cut its postseason participants from all 10 schools to eight. LeCrone said he was hesitant at first, but eventually grew to like the format.

"The impact it had on the interest in our regular season was interesting," he said. "The first hurdle ... are you in or are you out? Who's going to host the first-round games?

"So I'm becoming more of a fan of it. It might be better for our league right now."

All four host teams won their home playoff games, for both men and women.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984