CLEVELAND — Six years ago, the man in charge of the Huntington Center stood before the dozen athletic directors of the Mid-American Conference and made his pitch.
The MAC basketball tournament should return to our open arms.
First the women’s games, then perhaps the men’s, too.
“Toledo would be perfect,” Steve Miller said.
In a 35-minute presentation at a Cleveland hotel, he laid out the city’s selling points. The central location. The modern venue. The head-over-sneakers spirit for women’s hoops. Rather than play in front of several hundred fans scattered in a 20,000-seat arena in Cleveland — where, let’s be real, the four-day event moves the needle less than a broken sewing machine — Toledo offered the promise of several thousand fans packed into an 8,000-seat noise trap.
Naturally, the administrators at Toledo and Bowling Green, who helped Miller get the audience, loved the idea. The other ADs not so much, their concerns centered on the perception of gender bias — the men playing in a major league arena, the women in a minor league one — and the home-court advantage it assured our area schools. “I would say the response was lukewarm,” Toledo AD Mike O’Brien said.
Thanks but no thanks.
Like March Madness itself, the rejection has since become an annual tradition.
“I would love Toledo to get another chance at it,” said Miller, general manager of the Huntington Center. “I call the league every year.”
Keep up the good fight, Steve.
It may fall on deaf ears — or, going off some of the crowds here, no ears at all — but it is a worthy one.
Now, are we homers? Sure.
Realistically, the MAC tournament — which opened its 19th straight run in Cleveland on Wednesday — isn’t going anywhere. Well, unless Madison Square Garden has room for another Midwest cameo.
MSG: You can have the first week of January, but the Rangers are in town in Wednesday, so you have to play the championship game at 11 p.m. on ice.
MAC: Will it be on TV?
MSG: Yep, ESPNews, right after the junior Quidditch regionals.
We kid because we love. Look, we all get it. The MAC wanted a bigger stage than Toledo and found it in Cleveland, where, along with its headquarters, the league moved its basketball tournament in 2000.
Who could argue against upgrading from the makeshift arena inside the SeaGate Centre — where the tournament was played from 1996-99 — to an NBA palace? Logistically, the move was and remains a hit. As much as we give the MAC grief, it runs its hoops festival at the Q as well as any major conference in the country, first-rate all the way.
“This place has everything we want and need,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said.
And yet every year the tournament leaves us wanting, with the same thought: the MAC would do better in Toledo.
Here’s the deal: the tourney barely makes a dent in metro Cleveland, where, with the Indians in spring training, the Cavaliers fresh off their soup opera, and the Browns existing, the next minute of sports radio here spent on the MAC will be one of the first. In Toledo, the event’s return would be a weeklong civic celebration, not unlike the Marathon Classic golf tournament.
“It could take over a town like Toledo where it’s not going to take over Cleveland,” Toledo men’s coach Tod Kowalczyk said.
We keep saying it, but the 8-year-old Huntington Center is indeed the perfect venue in the perfect market.
At the least, the MAC should reconsider moving the women’s tournament back to Toledo. (The Huntington Center wants the men, too, but Miller said, “I’m not going to be selfish.”)
You can argue whether the entire tournament makes sense in Toledo.
Even with the upper deck cloaked in black curtains, the men’s atmospheres in Cleveland occasionally deliver. Take last year, when a crowd of 10,376 watched a best-case-scenario final between nearby rivals Kent State and Akron. Other seasons, the title games absent a local school average about half that while the early-round contests evoke a charnel house.
Our guess is Toledo would outdraw Cleveland, but who knows?
On the women’s side, there is no debate. I appreciate the gender-equity concerns and the appeal of playing in the House of LeBron, but I’d argue just the opposite: Toledo would give the women’s tourney the support and atmosphere it deserves.
This year, the final is likely to match two tournament-bound teams in Buffalo and Central Michigan, and the league might announce a crowd of 1,000.
One of the best things about our sports scene is the enthusiasm for women’s college hoops, including at Toledo, where the Rockets’ league-high average attendance last year (3,744 fans per game) would have ranked in the top half of every major conference. We’ll point out, too, more than 4,000 fans turned out to Savage Arena for the first-round games of the 2014 NCAA tourney, none of which included the hometown team. (Yes, Notre Dame was there, but Toledo did its part, too.)
The reality is the MAC women’s tournament in Cleveland is a financial loser, and, with its white knight waiting, the solution is simple. Similar to the major conferences, the league should separate its marquee events, deciding the women’s bracket in Toledo one week, the men’s in Cleveland the next, or vice versa, to maximize interest and exposure.
O’Brien, for one, hopes the league someday reconsiders. He praised the tourney in Cleveland, but believes it could do better in Toledo.
“There would be a lot of interest,” he said.
Until then, Miller will keep calling.
And we’ll keep dreaming.
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