Conventions & Meetings Sections

MAAC Madness

Hoop Tournament Brings Net Results for the Conference and the City

Matt Hollander

Matt Hollander says the MAAC tournament not only provides a boost for downtown business, it gives the city a chance to display its ability to handle large events.

The UMass Amherst McCormack Center for Sport Research & Education has been gathering some much-anticipated data this month.

The center has been commissioned to quantify the overall economic benefit to Springfield and the region from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Division I college basketball tournament, which recently wrapped up its second visit to Springfield, one during which the conference’s acronym became a discernable part of the local lexicon.

Nick Polimeni is naturally interested in what the study will show, but he told BusinessWest that he doesn’t have to wait for the numbers to declare that the tournament has been a success for Springfield and businesses in its downtown.

“I noticed a lot of different faces, a lot of team colors and team jerseys,” said Polimeni, manager of McCaffrey’s Public House on Main Street, just over a three-point shot’s distance from the MassMutual Center, where the tournament played out. “It was absolutely great for the downtown.”

Nadim Kashouh, owner of Nadim’s Mediterranean Restaurant and Grill, roughly a block from the arena, concurred. He wasn’t able to say if the 2013 tournament topped the first gathering in Springfield, but he could state with confidence that it provided a needed boost for businesses in the area.

“No doubt about it … it’s great for the city, and we need to see more of this type of event,” he told BusinessWest.

If Paul Lambert and Matt Hollander have their way, the city will see at least more of the MAAC tournament, and perhaps additional sporting events as well.

Lambert is vice president of Guest Experience and Programming for the Basketball Hall of Fame, and Hollander is general manager of the MassMutual Center. Both were part of the group that in 2009 convinced the MAAC to bring its tournament here from 2012 to 2014, and they will be among those trying to gain another three-year contract from the conference.

Hollander said the tournament has not only provided a boost for downtown businesses, including his own, but, perhaps more importantly, it has enabled the city to show that it can put on events of this magnitude, and that its mix of amenities and attractions provides a package that can be effectively sold.

“There are so many assets that we can brag about,” said Hollander. “I think, as locals, we sometimes forget, when you put it all together, how truly rich a fabric we have here.”

Lambert, meanwhile, said the first two tournaments staged in Springfield have shown how mutually beneficial the event has become for the Hall, the city, and the conference. The hoop shrine gains visibility and some additional visitorship from the three-day event, he noted, while the MAAC gains invaluable exposure from both the games and an elaborate exhibit on the conference that will be a feature in the Hall for at least the next four years. “The MAAC is the only conference to have a relationship like that with the Hall of Fame.”

Richard Ensor, now in his 25th year as commissioner of the MAAC, was part of the site-selection team that eventually chose Springfield. He said the city’s local organizing committee (LOC) has succeeded not only in effectively selling Springfield as a host for such events, but also in delivering a solid product.

“The LOC has been well-coordinated from the start of the bidding three years ago, their implementation, and the rollout of this year’s event,” he said just before tip-off for the men’s final. “They know how to put events on; they have a history of it.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the how the MAAC tournament came to Springfield, and why, in addition to the men’s and women’s champions — Iona and Marist, respectively — there are many other winners to be counted.

 

Full-court Press

Lambert remembers the MAAC tournament site-selection committee’s first major visit to Springfield in 2009 — part of an 18-month-long bidding process — and how it didn’t get off to a fast start.

“We had the feeling when they first got here that they were on their way to ‘somewhere else,’” he recalled.  “They were tired; it had been a long day on the road for them. But once we got to talking about Springfield, the MassMutual Center, the Hall of Fame … by the time they left, it felt like they had gone from modest interest to some very strong interest.”

Backing up a few more years, Lambert said that, through much of its history, the MAAC’s tournament has been played on the home courts of conference members — Canisius College, Fairfield University, Iona College, Loyola University Maryland, Manhattan College, Marist College, Niagara University, Rider University, Saint Peter’s College, and Siena College. But in late 2008, coaches and administrators had expressed to the MAAC Council of Presidents and league office that these home-court sites had become too much of a playing and recruiting advantage for the host school. The council then decided to take the tournament to a neutral site (Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn. was the first), and in late 2009, Springfield’s MassMutual Center won the bid for 2012 through 2014.

Looking back, both Lambert and Hollander said the city’s mix of strong points, from the Hall of Fame to its abundance of hotel rooms near the MassMutual Center, to its previous history of hosting college basketball games and tournaments, enabled it to prevail.

“That part, I think, is the easiest part of the sale, because we do have such a good infrastructure for these types of events,” said Hollander, noting that Springfield had a lengthy run hosting the Division II national championship tournament, and had demonstrated the ability to create a championship environment of restaurant dine-arounds, welcome signage, marketing efforts, educational programming, and ancillary events leading up to the games.

Ensor said the city’s history with basketball tournaments helped sell the site-selection committee, but so did the MassMutual Center’s track record for staging a variety of sporting events, and the Hall’s ability to stage gatherings such as its annual induction ceremony.

Ken Taylor, associate commissioner of the MAAC, noted that getting downtown business owners to support the event is what has made Springfield so successful attracting more than 6,000 fans of the 10 schools and 20 teams in each of the first two years.

“Our member schools stress two things that they enjoy about Springfield: first, the hospitality provided by the hotels, and the arena is first-class; second, the MassMutual Center is a neutral site — meaning no team has a home-court advantage,” Taylor went on. “Those two factors create a first-rate atmosphere for our student athletes, coaches, and fans.”

And the presence of those constituencies, especially the fans, creates opportunities for a host of businesses.

Polimeni cited a party he hosted for a group of Loyola alumni on the Saturday of tournament week as just one example. “It was huge … there were probably 60 of them, and they had a great time.”

 

The Big Dance

Assessing the first two years of the MAAC tournament’s presence in Springfield, conference administrators and LOC members alike say that, while the event remains a work in progress and all involved would like to see greater attendance at the games, the conference, the city, the Hall, and area businesses are all benefiting in some ways.

The MAAC exhibit at the Hall of the Fame is a good example, said Ensor, adding that, from the conference’s perspective, it provides an uncommon opportunity for visibility.

“This association with the Basketball Hall of Fame offers the MAAC the opportunity to be directly associated with the history of the sport,” he told BusinessWest. “And it provides the MAAC and its institutions with unique branding within the college-basketball community.”

But the MAAC is not alone in reaping rewards from the exhibit. Indeed, the conference invested more than $100,000 in the display, which was created by the Indian Orchard-based firm 42 design fab, which has handled a number of projects for the shrine. Meanwhile, businesses within the Hall complex, including Max’s Tavern, which hosted two events during tournament week, have also seen a boost.

“People can see how the investment on the part of the LOC brings returns,” said Ensor. “Not only that the fans and teams are spending, but we as a conference are spending.”

For the city, the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, and MassMutual Center, there are many benefits as well, said Hollander and Lambert, noting the obvious boost given to hotels, restaurants, and clubs. But there is the added vibrancy from events such as this year’s FanFest, sponsored by MGM Springfield. It featured a series of basketball-related events for children and adults of all ages, including relay races and dribbling and shooting contests. In addition, for Xfinity’s Bounce to the Arena, a mile-long parade of kids and adults (and some MAAC team cheerleaders) assembled at the Hall of Fame Center Court to shoot baskets, then proceed to dribble their way up Columbus Avenue, across to Main Street, and into the MassMutual Center.

“They were led by police cars, and folks were honking, cheering them on, and once they got to the center, they got to play at all the interactive FanFest games,” said Hollander.

But perhaps the greatest benefit to the city and those working to book meetings and conventions is the opportunity the MAAC conference provides to show what that team can do, said Hollander, and how this area can become host to other sporting events.

“It’s a great opportunity to showcase Springfield and the entire region,” he explained, “and also provide ample evidence that we stage events like this successfully.”

 

Final Buzzer

While ecstatic players from Iona and Marist were cutting down the nets following their wins in early March, and thus creating their own fond memories of Springfield, Lambert, Hollander, and others were already preparing themselves for the next bidding process for the MAAC tournament.

A request for proposals will be issued in April, and the selection will likely be made by the end of the year, said Ensor.

Whether Springfield prevails in that contest remains to be seen, but at present it seems to have a winning formula, one that is yielding net results, literally and figuratively, for all the parties involved.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

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