March is indeed becoming a maddening month for college basketball fans in Nashville.
Starting with the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament next month, Bridgestone Arena will host hoops each spring for the next four years.
How about 2017?
Speaking in town last week, commissioner Britton Banowsky casually raised the possibility that the Conference USA men’s tournament could end up in Nashville in March 2017 as well.
To Nashville Sports Council president Scott Ramsey, the city’s hardwood hospitality knows no boundaries.
“Would it be a great opportunity? Sure,” Ramsey said. “I think any time that we can expose our city to college sports fans coming to Nashville, especially new markets, it is a positive for us. As we look long-term we like the opportunity that this opens up the door for us with the conference for all kinds of sports that we could possibly host championships for, not just basketball.”
With Middle Tennessee State’s move to C-USA this July, Banowsky sees Nashville as a great market to tap into. Based in Irving, Texas, the league will become the largest Football Bowl Subdivision conference in the country when it expands to 16 schools.
Banowsky envisions Music City as an ideal destination for postseason championships, especially since the league boasts schools in 11 states, spanning from Texas to Virginia to Florida.
But C-USA is already committed to hosting its tournament in El Paso, Texas, next year and the SEC has locked in Bridgestone for the 2015 and 2016 tournaments.
So Banowsky has targeted 2017.
“It would be sweet,” he said. “It is a destination city. It is centrally located to our Eastern Division and it is also reachable for our Western Division schools. Quite some time ago we talked about whether we were better off parking the tournament in one place and trying to grow it or whether to move it around. Because of the nature of the conference and how big our footprint was, moving it around and giving opportunity to all the fans to access it was most important.”
Last year, Bridgestone Arena hosted the opening rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The venue also welcomed in the SEC women’s tournament for the second straight year. Next month — and in 2015, 2016 and 2019 — fans will flock to Broadway for the SEC men’s tournament.
For 19 of the last 20 years, the Ohio Valley Conference has hosted its championship game in Nashville. In three weeks, the league will play both basketball tournaments on the opposite end of downtown, at Municipal Auditorium, for the third straight year.
Next spring, Nashville hosts its first Division I national championship — the 2014 Women’s Final Four.
So what is another basketball tournament in March? Another chance to open the streets of Nashville to a new audience.
“In the 17 years I’ve been here, it is an incredibly relationship-driven business,” Ramsey said. “I think having relationships now with Conference USA, their athletic directors, their presidents, their leadership, exposes our city to the leaders in the collegiate industry. Whether that is bidding on a Women’s Final Four, a NCAA men’s tournament, a basketball tournament, a baseball tournament, it gives the other opportunity now to develop some relationships with the leadership.”
Nashville figured largely into the conversation when Banowsky and C-USA entertained inviting the Blue Raiders to join the league. According to MTSU president Sidney McPhee, more than 70 percent of the school’s 100,000-plus alumni reside in a 30- to 60-mile radius of Murfreesboro.
“We feel we have real strength in numbers,” athletics director Chris Massaro said. “If we can activate our alumni base and get them a little more passionate and I think Conference USA will be a tool that will help us do that. We’ve got to win games and bring championships. But our growth, really, I’m so excited about our future. We can do this and Conference USA provides great platforms in order to get that done.”
Expanding the conference’s reach to Nashville along with Charlotte, San Antonio and New Orleans will increase its home markets by 43 percent from 10.1 million homes currently to 14.5 million next year. C-USA has television agreements with Fox Sports Network and CBS Sports Network, while ESPN carries the league’s football championship game.
Along with basketball, all parties involved expressed interest in Nashville as a home for multiple events.
The Music City Bowl’s contract with the SEC and ACC expire at the end of 2013, opening the door for new conferences such as C-USA. Massaro mentioned that the conference baseball tournament could come to Greer Stadium and would like to see MTSU play a big-name opponent at LP Field again. That last happened when the Blue Raiders met Louisville nearly halfway in 2006.
To Banowsky, the opportunities are endless, if not immediate.
“Nashville has a downtown area that is first class, state-of-the-art,” he said. “You have the connection to the hotels and the retail area, so the model sets up pretty well. The Nashville market is an important market. It is a growing market. It is dynamic. They love college sports here in Nashville.”