This past week, the Atlantic Sun announced a change to their conference tournament plans, one that goes against the common wisdom: Instead of holding the games at a neutral site, the highest seed will host each game.
The reasoning? Partially, luck. Mercer, this year’s host, happened to make the final, and nearly 5,000 attended the championship game between the Bears and a little-known team called Florida Gulf Coast. It was a larger crowd than the tournament has seen in recent years. So, to keep their momentum going, and have bigger crowds and better TV experiences for their tournament finals, the Atlantic Sun is taking the rare step of ditching “neutral” sites, and giving the higher seed home-court advantage in each round.
The OVC should be paying attention. More than that, the OVC should be doing the same.
Let’s begin with the disadvantages for the OVC to follow in the Atlantic Sun’s footsteps, which do exist. First, it spreads out the tournament, and likely lessens the chances that the OVC semifinals get nationally televised. It’s one thing to set up a day early at the same site as the finals, but the risk of a favorite losing, and having to move sites could have ESPN thinking otherwise.
But the OVC Digital Network is still there, and the entire point is to get fans to the games. Television coverage is great, no question about it, but much like the Atlantic Sun, imagine a full Curb Event Center for this year’s championship game, or even better, a full CFSB Center two years ago. Compare that to the TV atmosphere this year, of a half-full site, or during the semifinals, a virtually empty Municipal Auditorium. Having that big-school atmosphere during the tournament shine on national television would be much more positive than hearing the squeaking of shoes on the floor.
For profits, how could this not help the OVC? The conference would still control the prices (like they did when the first round was held on campus sites not that long ago) and could still get the revenue from the gate. Sure, concession money would stay with the schools, but would not the increased attendance, especially in the early rounds when saying 1,000 fans are in attendance in Nashville is a stretch, not easily make up for, and likely expand the conference’s profits?
Sure, from a media standpoint, covering the tournament as an “event” is going to be more of a challenge. But let’s be honest, how many members of the media are covering more than a pair of teams? There’s me, and me, and, um…that’s about it.
There are a few other disadvantages as well. With the OVC fielding NBA-caliber players the past few years, scouts would have to travel to numerous sites. They do anyway.
Sure, a “neutral” site is more fair. But let’s be honest, Nashville is hardly “neutral” when Tennessee State or Belmont is involved. Or even Tennessee Tech or Austin Peay.
And the tournament would have to cover more than a week under it’s current format. I’m not exactly certain how that’s a bad thing: to have rested teams playing one another, versus teams playing on back-to-back days?
The Atlantic Sun, much like the OVC, is looking to cash in on recent successes. I agree with the Atlantic Sun that the best way to do that is to bring the game to the fans, not expect the fans to go to the game. Nashville is nice in March, I admit, but the one thing that I, and so many fans of college basketball love is the atmosphere. The sounds of the student sections, of eruptions after big three-point shots. We may get that in Nashville for the tournament final, but let’s admit it, the reason for that belongs to Murray State and the two Nashville-based teams they’ve faced the last two years.
Let me see the attendance if Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois made the finals. Absolutely nothing against either of their fan bases, but expecting fans to travel five hours on a day’s notice isn’t going to yield results.
The Atlantic Sun is onto something; the way to get noticed as a smaller conference isn’t to try and act like you’re bigger than you are. It’s to bring what’s special about your schools, and your players to the national stage.
You can’t do that in Municipal.
You can do it only by going to the schools, and letting their fans, and their spirit shine.