Tom Wilson working on bringing Big Ten basketball tournament to Detroit

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Tom Izzo and Michigan State defeated Michigan in the Big Ten tournament championship game last season.

Detroit — The Horizon League basketball tournaments didn't work out at Little Caesars Arena, the attendance too low for either party to justify bringing it back to Detroit for a fifth year, as called for by the original contract.

But Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, continues to insist "this is such a huge college basketball market," that he continues to search for opportunities to keep bringing marquee events to downtown.

That commitment was evident recently when Michigan State and Oakland renewed their rivalry with a six-year deal that calls for every other year to be played at LCA, and the other years to be played at Breslin Center in East Lansing.

They will play at LCA on Saturday, Dec. 14, then again in 2021 and 2023.

But Wilson said Olympia is thinking bigger, and he confirmed his group and the Big Ten have had early discussions about the future of the Big Ten tournament.

"Well, they're locked up for the next few years, but we've had some conversations," Wilson said. Asked if those initial conversations with strictly internal or external, too, he said, "External, with their people, as well. You have to start making sure you're at least on their radar."

The Big Ten men's tournament is under contract for Indianapolis (Bankers Life Fieldhouse) in 2020 and 2022, and Chicago (United Center) in 2021.

After that, it's anybody's guess, though the Big Ten has held its tournament in Indianapolis and Chicago every year but two, and those two outliers weren't exactly well-received — in Washington D.C. in 2017 and in Madison Square Garden in 2018, as the Big Ten tried to play kind to its new television markets, after Maryland and Rutgers had joined the conference.

But Detroit is a bit different, a long-standing Big Ten town, not far from two major Big Ten schools, in Michigan and Michigan State.

And Wilson said there is interest in Detroit from outside the state, too.

"The building's been so well-received," said Wilson, noting a recent ranking again has it third in the country, behind MSG and the Forum in Los Angeles. "Even people outside the market, we're getting people more interested in what's happening down here."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has long said he hopes to see the Big Ten tournament move to Detroit eventually. It is worth noting, the conference is changing commissioners, Kevin Warren taking over for Jim Delany on Jan. 1, 2020. Delany has been commissioner longer than the Big Ten tournament has been in existence.

Warren also has ties to Detroit, having worked in the Lions business department from 2001-03.

Whatever happens on that front, Wilson said there are other ways to get college hoops into LCA. Obviously, it will continue to seek NCAA Tournament assignments — it hosted first- and second-round games in 2018, the sessions highlighted by Syracuse's win over Michigan State. He also said there have been some discussions to get Michigan back in the fold. Detroit Mercy also is working on scheduling some bigger opponents, and those could be held at LCA.

For now, it's just Michigan State-Oakland that's officially on the schedule, and that's no small thing, Wilson said, given the game is always a huge draw. That's because Oakland always tends to bring it, even though Michigan State is unbeaten in the series. In 2017, the first year of the arena, Michigan-Detroit Mercy and Michigan State-Oakland played a doubleheader there. Michigan-Detroit Mercy was the early game and sparsely attended; the nightcap was near capacity.

"They've played some wonderful games," Wilson said, noting that the 2015 game at The Palace that went to overtime, before No. 1 Michigan State hung on.

"For whatever reason, they raise their game. It's good for college basketball."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984