SEC tourney to Nashville benefits the schools that take hoops seriously
The SEC announced Tuesday that it plans on making Nashville's Bridgestone Arena the semi-permanent home of the conference's men's basketball tournament. Why is it semi-permanent? Because the conference has already awarded several upcoming years to Atlanta (2014, 2020), Saint Louis (2017) and Tampa (2018), to go along with previously-established plans for Nashville to host in 2015, 2016 and 2019. What this announcement changes is that the Music City will also host the league's marquee basketball event for a six-year run from 2021-26, meaning that nine of the next 13 SEC tournaments will take place on the banks of the Cumberland River. Semi-permanent, indeed.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive mentioned last spring that the conference was exploring the idea of holding the SEC tournament at a "primary" location in much the same way that Atlanta hosts the annual SEC Championship in football, and Hoover, Ala., hosts baseball's version of the SEC tournament. Athletic directors and league officials at the time pointed to the sustained success of those events as the driver toward consolidation of the event in a single, primary venue, but the league's feelings toward basketball remained unspoken among public officials. Unlike SEC football, whose cultural hegemony vacuums up year-round fan and media attention in the deep South, SEC basketball outside of a few select schools remains mostly an afterthought. Nashville as the primary SEC tourney site makes sense not only because the city really embraces the event and provides a superb downtown "fun zone" that allows fans a great weekend experience, but also because it's a relatively easy driving trip for the few schools' fans that will show up because they at least marginally care about basketball (we're talking about Kentucky, Missouri, Vanderbilt, and sometimes Tennessee and Arkansas here).
This isn't to say that those other schools don't spend money or pay lip service toward developing and sustaining success on the hardwood. The financial math of successful hoops (meaning NCAA tournament win shares) makes perfect sense, and explains why a tried-and-true football school such as Auburn recently built a shiny new $86 million arena, or why gridiron stalwarts Georgia and Alabama are willing to pay their head coaches nearly $2 million each to lead their hoops teams to postseason riches. Still, improving the athletic department's bottom line doesn't equate to changing general fan perceptions of the sport, and the truth is that there simply aren't enough Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and South Carolina basketball fans around who are willing to buy tickets to attend the SEC tournament each March (think about how poorly Georgia fans supported the Bulldogs when the SEC tournament was in Atlanta). And this is true regardless of how good the product on the court actually is that year.
SEC officials, of course, have known this for decades, and they're making the smart move to maximize the SEC tournament's relevance and viability by focusing on the fortunate geographic positioning of Nashville. Vanderbilt is the local school, and Tennessee has Big Orange fans all over the state. Neither Fayetteville nor Columbia are what we would describe as located nearby (both are six- or seven-hour drives), but those two schools have large fan bases in closer locales like Memphis and Saint Louis and have proven that they'll show up to support their hoops teams. That leaves the Big Blue Behemoth, with Lexington a mere three hours away and Kentucky fans in love with the nightlife and southern fried hospitality of downtown Nashville.
Other conferences have, either by hook or by crook, made such a regional connection work for them. The ACC has traditionally held its tournament in the heart of Tobacco Road at Greensboro, ensuring that the rabid fan bases at North Carolina, Duke and NC State were always well-represented at the venue. The Big East has always held its extravaganza at New York's Madison Square Garden, allowing the myriad large fan bases from Syracuse, Connecticut and the various northeastern Catholic schools to have a raucous presence in the building. The Big 12 tournament has moved around a bit, but that conference too has figured out that the best experiences are usually the ones located in a fun place within the heart of basketball country -- in its case, Kansas City.
The SEC is unlikely to ever become the top basketball conference -- fan support at too many prominent schools is lacking, and no amount of new buildings or expensive coaches is likely to change that -- but the SEC tournament's move to Nashville for much of the foreseeable future makes great financial and competitive sense for the league. Case in point: 18 of the SEC's last 29 NCAA bids (from 2007-13) have come from the group of five schools named above that tends to support its basketball programs. Why wouldn't the SEC want to provide those teams with a bit of an edge in terms of access when it comes to end-of-season positioning for March Madness? And if it helps the bottom line because there are more people in the seats to watch Kentucky, well, that works too.
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