Where NCAA Basketball is King

 Where NCAA Basketball is King

UD fights to keep the NCAA First Four where it belongs.

In 1985, a 19-year-old Ted Thompson was on his feet, cheering, in University of Dayton Arena as Farleigh-Dickinson University nearly upset Michigan in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

“They just kept hanging with them and by the second half, the whole crowd was on their feet chanting, ‘FDU!’ ” recalls Thompson, laughing at the absurdity of cheering for a random team who had traveled to Dayton from, well, he wasn’t quite sure.

“I couldn’t point to it on a map if you pointed a gun to my head,” he says. (It’s in New Jersey).

That’s the beauty of Dayton’s love affair with NCAA basketball: the fans in this region embrace the far-flung teams who come into town for the first rounds and play-in games with home-court passion.

Their allegiance has allowed UD Arena to host 100 NCAA men’s Division 1 basketball games, more than any other arena in the country.

“The people from Dayton are accustomed to supporting NCAA tournament games,” says Timothy O’Connell, vice president of athletics and executive director of UD Arena. “It’s part of the fabric of Dayton.”

But that reputation will be tested this summer, as the NCAA accepts bids from cities across the country to host the First Four play-in round when Dayton’s contract ends in 2015. Not only is tradition at stake—UD has hosted the play-in games since their inception in 2001—but also an estimated $10 million in economic jolt.

In making its choice, the NCAA considers expected ticket sales, expected expenses, local amenities such as hotels and airports and the staff’s ability to host at a championship-level tournament, O’Connell says. In October, UD lost its bid to host upcoming rounds of the women’s NCAA tournament; games went instead to nearby cities such as Louisville and Lexington, Ky.

Ticket sales are critical. They go on sale to the public in November.

“The thing we have to do is sell tickets. We need to have people in the arena,” he says. “Everything else has been a proven success.”

The tournament sold out last year for the first time, with the help of the local organizing committee who worked with businesses and nonprofit groups to fill the seats. They plan to do the same this year, decking the arena with passionate fans.

“The atmosphere inside UD Arena will be very important in our hope to be the long-term home for the First Four,” says Debbie Lieberman, a Montgomery County commissioner and committee member.

Another significant aspect of keeping the First Four is creating what O’Connell calls a “championship experience” for the student athletes. Teams arrive by chartered plane into a hangar transformed into a welcoming area just for them. At their hotels, local high school bands play their fight songs and hotel and UD staff adorned in NCAA apparel greet them.

“It’s all the first-class treatment Dayton has done for years, making it welcoming and special and a pleasant experience for the student athletes,” he says. “The goal is to make sure these athletes have a championship experience throughout.”

For the fans, the committee is also planning to continue the community events surrounding the tournament, including a four-mile run and a basketball contest for children at Chaminade-Julienne High School. In 2012, a large festival in the Oregon District on Selection Sunday kicked off the event, but it wasn’t held this past season.

Ted Thompson, now 47 and a UD season ticket holder, will be back at UD Arena in March, as usual. Like many lifelong Daytonians, Thompson grew up going to UD Arena for NCAA basketball each March. It didn’t matter who was playing; he was there, in a packed arena, cheering for the sake of a good game, because that is what you do in Dayton. You are loyal, you buy the tickets, and every March, you get a chance to experience the NCAA tournament—often both men’s and women’s rounds—right here.

Ohio’s other cities have their professional teams, their blockbuster college football, but come winter in Dayton, basketball is king.

“If they try to move it somewhere else, they are going to realize Dayton is where it belongs,” Thompson says. “I don’t know anywhere else that would support it like people have here.”