SBJ/March 17-23, 2014/Colleges

Dayton angles to keep NCAA’s First Four

As the University of Dayton geared up for a basketball game against UMass earlier this month, a top NCAA official was relaxing in a back room of UD Arena with reporters.

Dan Gavitt is the NCAA vice president who oversees tournament games. He makes a habit of going to see as many games in different cities throughout the regular season as he can.

UD Arena has been home to the NCAA tournament’s opening games for 13 years.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“Dayton’s been an incredible host,” said Gavitt of the city’s that has hosted opening games of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament for the past 13 years, “hosting all these games over the years.”

The question is, will Dayton’s run as the NCAA’s First Four host continue after next year?

Dayton is set to host the First Four — the opening games of the annual tournament, to be played Tuesday and Wednesday this week — at UD Arena through at least 2015. Site selections for games beyond that are yet to be made, though. The NCAA will start a new bid cycle later this year for hosting future games, with announcements for 2016-18 expected in November.

Gavitt said Dayton’s chances to keep its NCAA connection are good.

“It’s just the kind of experience we’re looking for, for the athletes when they get here,” Gavitt said. “Dayton is in the pole position because they’ve done this so well for so long.”

From Dayton’s perspective, basketball is a key part to the city’s economic engine. Between local college regular seasons, high school tournaments and NCAA tournament games, basketball has brought $100 million to the area over the past 10 years. It’s because of that impact, and the particular visibility of the First Four, that a local organizing committee is pulling out all the stops to make sure Dayton stays on the NCAA’s host sheet.

“It’s about long-term making this like the Final Four or the Super Bowl,” said J.P. Nauseef, chairman of the committee, which was assembled by the University of Dayton to help promote the event. “It’s a natural fit, and it’s been proven already. The fans prove it every year. We’re trying to build that reality so we can become the de facto center for college basketball.”

The NCAA tradition clearly has been established in Dayton. UD Arena has hosted more NCAA men’s tournament games than any other venue: 101. Two years ago, the city’s connection to the First Four drew attention beyond basketball circles, as President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron joined Ohio Gov. John Kasich at the games at UD Arena.

But as the NCAA is deciding on whether to commit to keeping the First Four in central Ohio, local leaders are being active. Matt Farrell, a member of the local organizing committee, said the NCAA is considering several factors in its decision. While UD deals with the NCAA directly, local leaders have built a separate effort — dubbed Dayton Hoopla — to market the games to the community through the organizing committee.

Every year, the committee creates new events and activities to make the First Four experience different from past efforts. The committee also has been courting sponsors and has secured commitments from Montgomery County, Dayton Power & Light, Heidelberg, Dayton International Airport, and the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association among more than 70 other local businesses and organizations.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was President Obama’s guest in Dayton in 2012.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Peter Titlebaum, coordinator of the sport management program at University of Dayton, noted that the First Four’s strong local following extends beyond Dayton to other, neighboring cities. Without a major league sports team, Dayton fans have taken to college basketball with fervor, he said.

“You wouldn’t get something like this to go the way it has even in New York City,” Titlebaum said. “You roll out a basketball in Dayton, and you get 10,000 people. It doesn’t matter who’s playing.”

One of the biggest promotions that has been tied to the First Four has been giving tickets to U.S. Air Force personnel and their families from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. It’s also a major part of the culture that has been showcased by the Dayton Development Coalition, which offers economic incentives to promote business growth and attraction to the Dayton area.

“Having the NCAA tournament in Dayton every year is a brand that every city in the country envies,” said Jeff Hoagland, president and CEO of the coalition. “We use … the NCAA tournament to showcase our region.”

Supporters of Dayton’s place on the NCAA’s landscape have grown to include three NBA players who announced donations to support local First Four efforts recently: Los Angeles Lakers guard Kent Bazemore, New Orleans Pelicans guard Brian Roberts and Boston Celtics forward Chris Johnson. Roberts and Johnson played at the University of Dayton. Bazemore came to Dayton for games as a member of the Old Dominion basketball team.

Building the hype around the games carries a tangible impact the organizers hope will resonate with the NCAA, Farrell said. It begins again on Tuesday night.

“This is our last chance, Tuesday night,” he said, “in front of an audience of 10 million people, to showcase everything we’ve done and what it means to this community to have this event here.”

Tristan Navera writes for the Dayton Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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