Saturday, June 1, 2013

Return of MAAC Tournament To Albany A Good Move

Earlier this week came news that the MAAC tournament will return to the Albany, N.Y., area and its Times Union Center. It's a three-year commitment for the tournaments of 2015, 2016 and 2017.

To that, I can only give an emphatic "Hooray."

New York's Capital Region, which is Siena's home turf (and the TUC is Siena's home court) seems to be the only area which truly embraces the tournament.

The last time the event was held in Albany, in 2010, there was a fan turnout of 53,569, the all-time tournament best for fan support.

By comparison the total crowd count for the event at the Springfield, Mass., Mutual Center for this year's tournament was a very disappointing 14,394. It was the second year the event was held in Springfield, so community supporters there had a full year to create interest and couldn't. Crowds in Springfield were actually down from the 16,560 that turned out in 2012, the event's first run at the Massachusetts' location.

The sentiment here was that Springfield would be a nice site for the MAAC tournament. It's the birthplace of basketball, and had the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame just down the street, a terrific place to visit for basketball fans in the area for the tournament. The league even made good use of the Hall for its awards banquet and the athletes truly enjoyed the chance to wander around the facility, soaking in their sport's history.

The bottom line, though, is that despite the perceived interest in basketball in that area ... and, the relative proximity of several MAAC schools to Springfield ... the tournament just never attracted the on-site atmosphere, the crowds, that contribute so much to the games.

League presidents, who ultimately make the decision on the tournament's site, got what they wanted for the past two years (and the upcoming season, too, as Springfield will host the event one more time).

After Siena won the MAAC tournament, and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, for three straight seasons in Albany, officials at the league's other schools wanted a neutral site that, theoretically, created an equal playing field in the quest for a trip to the NCAA's.

Who could blame them? An NCAA trip is worth plenty to teams that go there, particularly teams at this level. The resultant national-level publicity, the television exposure and the resultant increases both in alumni donations and admission applications are benefits schools can't otherwise secure.

To that, the response should be: Get better.

When Siena was on its three-year run of winning the MAAC tournament on its home court ...  well, it also had the league's best team and almost assuredly would have also won the event no matter where it was played.

But, the desire remained for site neutrality. The cost was a crowd count of less than 30 percent of what Albany traditionally draws.

And, that wasn't exactly surprising. The tournament hasn't drawn well at any venue other than the Albany arena over the past two decades-plus.

The Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, NJ., which hosted the tournament one season backed out a subsequent contract to host over fear of a substantial financial loss.

Buffalo, which hosted the event multiple times, but drew relatively small fan numbers despite the location of two MAAC schools (Canisius, Niagara) within 15 miles of its arena, no longer even bids to host the event.

The Bridgeport, Conn., arena has also served as a tournament host to low numbers. That venue did get involved in the bidding for upcoming tournaments, but lost out to Albany's proposal.

Springfield also made a proposal to continue as the event's host. And, the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., also submitted a proposal to host the event.

The MAAC, though, came to a quick decision, selecting the Albany facility for the three-year commitment, barely a week after that arena's proposal was submitted.

"We still have much bigger crowds than anywhere else that's hosted it before ... I think that had a lot to do with the decision," said Times Union Center general manager Bob Belber.

MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor cited Albany's strong tradition of hosting the tournament (15 times to date), a vibrant downtown area and the players' enjoyment of competing in front of larger crowds, as factors in the decision.

Ensor has said, on multiple occasions, that he understands the importance of having a crowd-generated and loud atmosphere at MAAC tournament games and has always been supportive of having the event in Albany.

The event is also seeking to hold on to its prime time spot on ESPN's television schedule, and games look a lot better on TV when there's a large, enthusiastic crowd on hand rather than the turnout of 1,493 that watched the tournament's championship game in Springfield this year.

And, then, there's the potential message that the upcoming arrangement might be making.

In the current state of league instability, with programs seemingly changing leagues so quickly, rumors have circulated that Siena might eventually leave the conference for the Atlantic 10.

School officials, though, claim there has been on contact between Siena and the A-10 and that any talk about Siena moving to that league is purely speculative.

Does the upcoming three-year commitment by the MAAC to hold its tournament in Albany mean that Siena will remain a conference member, at least for as long as the just-announced commitment to host the event?

That was the initial though, but it's not necessarily so. The MAAC's agreement with the Times Union Center includes an option to move to another venue with the tournament should Siena leave the league.

Still, it's one person's opinion that a Siena-to-the-A 10 move isn't likely to happen in the immediate future.

The cost of moving the school's entire athletic operation to that league would come at considerable expense, an expense Siena doesn't appear capable of making right now.

And, the A-10 includes more than a few large, public institutions (UMass, VCU, Rhode Island, Duquesne, among others), schools with considerably greater resources than smaller, private colleges like Siena.

The MAAC has always been an affiliation of schools and programs with similar resources and philosophies toward athletics. Siena has been a nice "fit" within that profile.

So, it makes one wonder if Siena would move to the A-10 where the proverbial "fit" doesn't seem quite as good.

There's no definitive answer, for now. But, the strong guess here is that a Siena move out of the MAAC isn't on the immediate horizon.

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