Nothing But Net

For years, Springfield, the birthplace of basketball, was also home to the finals of the NCAA Men’s Division II Basketball Championship. After a 12-year hiatus, the city has been awarded the Elite Eight for the next two years. Event organizers intend to use that time to make a solid case for establishing Springfield as a permanent home.

Of late, when the National Collegiate Athletic Assoc. (NCAA) awards the Division II Men’s Basketball Championship to a city, it’s a one-year proposition.

That’s the way it’s been since the start of the decade, with stops in such places as Lakeland, Fla., Evansville, Ind., Bakersfield, Calif., and, last year, Grand Forks … North Dakota.

But when a group of Springfield businesspeople and basketball enthusiasts made a bid to bring the tournament back to Springfield for what would the 50th anniversary of the Division II championship in 2006, they asked the NCAA for two years — and they got them.

But that wasn’t the real goal.

Indeed, their mission was and is to make The City of Homes a permanent home for what has come to be known as the Elite Eight. This is a nearly week-long series of games that climaxes a 64-team tournament staged over two weeks each March, with the championship game broadcast live on CBS.

The request for two years, says Don Senecal, vice president of Finance and Operations for the Basketball Hall of Fame, was a bid to give Springfield a chance to show what it can do.

“This will be our opportunity to show that Springfield, Basketball City, is the place where the Elite Eight should be,” he told BusinessWest, “and we’re going to do our best to convince them.”

Already, organizers have commitments from 22 area businesses, amounting to more than $100,000 that will be used to stage the event and purchase tickets, some of which will go to area young people as part of broad basketball-oriented educational program called MVP’s of Character. Senecal said the immediate goal is to build on that base of support and thus show the NCAA that Springfield’s desire to host the event is a region-wide phenomenon.

Springfield was home for the tournament’s final games throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, Senecal explained, and drew decent crowds. But with a desire to spread the wealth, and perhaps give the tournament a boost, the NCAA took the show on the road — specifically to Louisville, Ky. There it stayed for six years before moving on to Bakersfield, Evansville, and other locales.

But Bob Burke and others in Springfield believe the Elite Eight belongs here.

Burke, athletic director at American International College, a Division II school that has acted as official host for the tournament in the past, and will do so again in ’06 and ’07, called Springfield the “natural home” for the championship.

“This is the birthplace of the sport,” he explained. “And we have everything the NCAA needs — a great facility, a number of hotels, and some great educational opportunities for the athletes playing in the tournament.”

Burke said this is a different Springfield than the one that last hosted the event in 1994, one with a refurbished arena that is part of a new, $55 million convention center, and a new Basketball Hall of Fame, one with a number of facilities and exhibits that didn’t exist in the old Hall.

“We have a lot to offer here,” he explained. “This will be a great opportunity for Springfield, the NCAA, and the athletes themselves.”

Sal D’Amato agreed.

Chairman of this year’s tournament and executive vice president of the TD Banknorth Insurance Group, he said the Elite Eight is about much more than basketball.

He told BusinessWest that there are economic benefits for Springfield and the region — for starters, the event is expected to consume 1,000 hotel nights — but there are other dividends, as well. The event will provide a chance to showcase the city and its gleaming new MassMutual Center, for example, and in the process show the NCAA and other groups it is a fitting site for conventions, meetings, and other sporting events.

Meanwhile, the games and the accompanying festivities could provide a needed psychological boost for the city at a time of extreme fiscal duress and headlines about possible bankruptcy or receivership.

“Springfield has had some difficult times, to be sure, but it’s starting to climb back,” D’Amato said. “The Elite Eight can be a big part of that comeback.”

BusinessWest looks this issue at how Springfield intends to make the most of its two-year window, and soon make the city and the name Elite Eight synonymous.

Bouncing Back

The colleges are not exactly household names.

Kennesaw State. Fort Hays State. Virginia Union. North Carolina Central. Kentucky Wesleyan. Metro State. These are some of the recent Men’s Division II champions, and most people would be hard pressed to find some of them on a map.

But while the schools may be small and somewhat obscure, the basketball they play is still top caliber, said Mark Morris, vice chairman of this year’s event and director of public relations for Health New England.

Tracing the history of the event, Morris said it all started in 1957 in Evansville (with Evansville College as the host school) and remained there for 20 tournaments, five of which were won by the hosts.

When Evansville became a Division I school, the tournament had to move, and Springfield earned its first opportunity to host the event in 1977. The event moved to another Springfield, the one in Missouri, for the next two years, before it returned to the Pioneer Valley for a 15-year run.

It was during that time, that area residents became familiar with such schools as Central Missouri State, Florida Southern, St. Augustine’s, Alaska-Anchorage, and Mount St, Mary’s. Attendance for the final games was fairly steady through those years — championship game turnout ran from a high of

6,894 in 1987 to a low of 3,555 in 1980 — and often reflected the proximity of the teams to the region and the number of fans they brought with them, Morris explained.

But by 1994, the NCAA wanted to take the event to other sites, said Morris, noting that this is the policy with Division I basketball finals, the hugely popular Final Four, and other tournaments. Louisville played host for six years, drawing attendance numbers similar to Springfield’s. But turnout has declined in the past few years, with only 2,378 coming out for the championship game in 2002 in Evansville, 1,600 for the 2004 game in Bakersfield, and about 1,500 for last year’s tilt in North Dakota.

“Grand Forks had a great facility, a wonderful place to watch a basketball game,” said Morris. “But they didn’t get the turnout; there were some logistical challenges — only one airline actually flies into the city.”

But even before the tip-off in Grand Forks, Springfield was making its case to bring the tournament back to Springfield, said Senecal, noting that as it did so, it had commitments from 22 area businesses and organizations that helped sell the NCAA on the city and the region.

Net Results

As he talked about Springfield’s two-year window of opportunity to impress the NCAA and make the Elite Eight a fixture in the city, D’Amato said organizers have to do more than fill seats — although that is an important consideration.

Indeed, there must be a broad base of support that includes business and civic leaders and area residents. Building that base is a process that started more than a year ago, he told BusinessWest, adding that it started with a commitment on the part of officials at the Hall of Fame and others to bring the championship back to Springfield.

To make that happen, the city needed to make a bid to the NCAA, and to do that it needed a solid case.

There are many elements to that case, said Senecal, including accessibilty — getting teams and fans to the game — and also facilities and accommodations. Beyond those essentials, however, he added, the city needed a solid core of supporters.

Springfield had one in the form of an organizing committee for the championship comprised of those 22 businesses and groups, also known as ‘Community shareholders.’

They include the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, TD Banknorth, the Hall of Fame, Chicopee Savings Bank, Comcast, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., Freedom Credit Union, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Burea, Health New England, Houser Auto Group, and Verizon. Also, MassMutual, the Northeast-10 Conference (which includes AIC), Peoplesbank, The Republican, Sheraton Springfield, Six Flags New England, Spalding, the MassMutual Center, Springfield Marriott, the Tip Off Committee, and Western Mass. Electric.

“Having that base of supporters really convinced the NCAA that Springfield could do this, that we could put on a great championship,” said D’Amato, adding quickly that organizers are seeking additional sponsorships from area businesses. “That’s what sold them.”

Now that Springfield has the Elite Eight for this year and next, said Senecal, the assignment is to put on tournaments that will give the NCAA reason to keep the event here. He said the facilities such as the MassMutual Center, the new Hall of Fame, the downtown hotels, and the proximity to Bradley International Airport will all help in that regard.

But another key ingredient in the equation is making the Elite Eight more than a series of seven basketball games, he said, and instead a community event.

This was the motivation behind such initiatives as MVP’s of Character, which is expected to include nearly 1,000 area students. They will hear several speakers, including Bob Amastas, founder and director of Students Against Drunk Driving, and former Olympic gold medalist and motivational speaker Tim Daggett.

“There is an important philanthropic component to this,” said D’Amato. “We’re going to have 1,000 kids at the MassMutual Center to watch some basketball, but also listening and learning.”

Senecal told BusinessWest that there are no hard estimates on the overall economic impact of the championship on the city and region. Beyond the 1,000 hotel nights, however, the event is expected to be a boon for area restaurants, clubs, the Hall of Fame, and other hospitality related businesses.
But there will other benefits, he contin

ued, including the opportunity to showcase the city before a fairly large and diverse audience (the final game will be broadcast nationally) that includes the NCAA, which stages hundreds of championships and events each year.

“This will be a chance for us to show we a great city this is,” said D’Amato. “And if we do a good job hosting this event — and I’m very confident that we will — there may be opportunities for us to host other NCAA events down the road.”

In the meantime, the event should provide a psychological boost, the size of which is still to be determined.

“There will be a sense of pride to come with staging this event and making it successful,” said Senecal. “

Fast Facts

What:The NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship — the Elite Eight.
When: March 22-25
Where: Springfield, Mass., the MassMutual Center
Contact: For tickets, information, or sponsorship details, call (413) 231-5515.

Courting History

The tournament committee has chosen the marketing slogan The National Championship Happens Here for the upcoming Elite Eight.

The plan, however, is to be able to use the branding tool for a long time.
Armed with a solid game plan and a team of business leaders supporting the effort, organizers believe they have a winning proposition.

They’ll have two years to make their case.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]