Thursday, March 8, 2012

MAAC Neutral Site Right Move For MAAC, Loyola

Wonder why the MAAC's tournament was a success in its first year of a three-season commitment to Springfield, Mass.?

Here's a column, a follow-up on the Loyola men's tournament title and upcoming trip to the NCAA tournament, done by my longtime friend Kevin Cowherd for the Baltimore Sun:,0,7705566.column

The piece merely describes the joy and benefits related to the program's recent success.

There's nothing about crowd counts, which happened to be the lowest since the league began playing its post-season event in "host" arenas in 1990.

The previous low total attendance for the tournament came in Trenton, N.J., when only 16,721 turned out in 2003 and a subsequently scheduled event appearance there was cancelled when arena officials feared another financial setback if the event returned.

This year's total attendance? Just 16,127.

And, while it's nice to have large crowds as the event's backdrop (53,569 turned out when Siena won the tournament crown in 2010), in truth the game is the thing.

When it comes to the game, the decision made at the level of school presidents is to play on a neutral court.

The belief is that a neutral court results in a relatively equal competitive situation, that playing in home court venues is too much a benefit to the home team.

On the other hand, the Fairfield men never won the tournament the two years it was played in Bridgeport, Conn., even as the top-seeded men's team last season.

Of the two Western New York teams, only Niagara won the event (once) in the four years it was hosted by Buffalo. And, Siena only won once in the tournament's first 12 appearances at its home-court Albany arena before a three-year run (2008, '09, '10) when it was arguably the league's best team all three years.

But the home court didn't hurt Siena in several of those championship runs.

In 2002, the Saints trailed Marist by double figures late in the first half of a quarterfinal-round game before rallying behind heavy crowd support.

In 2008 Loyola blew a 17-point lead to Siena in the semifinal round and in 2010 Fairfield led by 13 with just over 17 minutes to play before a crowd of more than 11,000 rabid Siena supporters created a real home-court advantage.

Afterwards, then Fairfield coach Ed Cooley admitted his young players (two freshmen played most of the guard minutes) were definitely adversely affected by the partisan and loud Siena crowd.

Try to convince former Marist coach Dave Magarity (2002), Jimmy Patsos (2008) and Cooley (2010) that playing on Siena's home court didn't play a big role in ending their respective teams' MAAC tournament chances.

Why is a neutral-court/equal-opportunity venue so important?

The above column, for one. Loyola has gotten more positive publicity since Monday than it has, surely, in more than a decade combined prior to this year's event.

Important? Patsos noted that two personal friends flew private jets to Monday's championship game. ... "And both will make contributions to the school," said Patsos, afterwards.

Those are the residual benefits of the positive publicity ... every MAAC school that has advance to the NCAA's has parlayed the national noteriety into substantial increases in alum donations, and into larger and better student-population admissions pools.

Bottom line is that the individual schools each want their equal opportunity at all of that, and aren't overly concerned about attendance. Particularly since Springfield's business community stepped up and guaranteed the MAAC, according to a variety of sources, more profit from the tournament than it reaped even two years ago when the all-time record of 53,569 turned out the last time the event was in Albany.

"While we always enjoyed the crowds in Albany from a sales perspective, the (other nine schools) didn't always appreciate it as much," said conference commissioner Rich Ensor, prior to Monday's championship contest.

Yet, of course, it would be nice if larger crowds turned out (although, even with barely more than 1,800 in the MassMutual Center for the men's championship game, crowd noise was loud). Ensor believes the Springfield administrators will do a better job of attracting the local basketball fans, ones with no direct affiliation to the conference schools, in future years.

There are other benefits, too. By playing in a non-MAAC city, the local publicity gets the name of conference schools out to Western and Central Massachusetts students, perspective MAAC students, in ways it never did before.

And, then, there's the sport's Hall of Fame, just a couple blocks down the road. The MAAC held its preseason awards show there, its post-season awards presentation there and also used it for a formal dinner honoring the first class of conference "Honor Roll" designees, past performers who had a role in their respective programs' development.

Now, there's a permanent (at least while the tournament is based in the city) 600-square foot display devoted exclusively to the MAAC. Centerpieces are video presentations of "A Day in the Life," in which current conference athletes discuss balancing academics and athletics, and a separate presentation in which the Honor Roll inductees discuss how playing college sports helped prepare them for life after college.

The Hall draws more than 200,000 annual visitors, many of them pre-college aged students.

In truth, athletic programs are often the primary selling point for a college at any level. In theory, any positive publicity helps attract more applications. Over the just-concluded MAAC tournament, the conference schools got considerable positive publicity in a relatively untapped market proximitous to a number of its member institutions.

On the court, now, the MAAC tournament is all about a fair setting, an equal opportunity for any of its members to win the event and reap the type positive and national publicity the Loyola men are currently receiving.

Return the event to Albany and draw more than 50,000 fans? Or, stay on a neutral court even if attendance is less than a third of that figure?

The strong guess is that Loyola would chose the latter.

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