Horizon League

Last call for Motor City Madness?

The Horizon League on Tuesday finally announced the dates – as well as some significant changes – for the men’s basketball conference tournament in what might be the final edition of Motor City Madness in Detroit.

The league announced two major changes to this year’s tournament, which will begin with quarterfinal games on March 5th and 6th and end with the conference tournament championship game on Tuesday, March 12th.

The first major change is that only the top eight teams in the standings will take part in the conference tournament.  This change comes after both the #9 and #10 seed advanced all the way to the tournament’s semifinals in 2017 with #10 seed Milwaukee playing in the tournament’s championship game.

The other significant change is in the format of the tournament.  The first round (quarterfinal) games will be played at the home arena of the higher seed in each of the four matchups with the #1 seed hosting the #8 seed, the #2 seed hosting #7, and so on.  The winners then advance to the semifinals and finals which will be played at Little Ceasers Arena in Detroit.

Gone are any sort of byes into the semifinals for the league’s top seeds as well as having to win four games in four days to earn the tournament championship.

Horizon League Tournament bracket

But perhaps the biggest news from the league’s press release was that the conference, Olympia Entertainment, and 313 Presents, the Detroit-based tournament promoter, mutually agreed that the 2019 tournament would be the final year of their current agreement.  The agreement was originally a five year deal that began in 2016 with the 2016 and 2017 tournaments being played at Joe Louis Arena before moving to the brand new Little Ceasers Arena last year.  There was an opt-out clause after year three of the deal which both sides have apparently chose to exercise following this season’s tournament.

“We have enjoyed a great partnership with Olympia Entertainment and 313 Presents to successfully host our men’s and women’s basketball championships in the city of Detroit,” Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone said in the statement. “We look forward to Motor City Madness in 2019 in a world class arena and are also excited about the future of our championships.”

This news does not necessarily mean that a neutral-site tournament in Detroit is dead. It is possible that the Horizon League, Olympia, and 313 Presents work out a new deal to keep the tournament at the home of the Detroit Pistons and Red Wings under a different format with more favorable dates. But according to the league’s statement they are exploring other sites for future tournaments and have even hired an Indianapolis-based consulting firm to assist in the process.

The Horizon League is headquartered in Indianapolis making Indiana’s capital city a constant rumor to be the tournament’s next host among league circles. Chicago could also theoretically host the tournament at one of its more intimate basketball arenas. It is also possible that the league returns to having the #1 seed host the tournament as was the case from 2003 through 2015.

“Opportunities to host future Horizon League Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships will be open to all of our member schools, and their surrounding communities, including Detroit. We are open to collaborative bids from a variety of partners,” LeCrone said.

little caesars arena

For its part, Motor City Madness has increased the overall conference tournament attendance over the three final years of the on-campus tournament, mostly due to the sparsely attended first round home games of years past.

In 2015, the final year of the top seed hosting duties, the Horizon League Tournament had 14,019 people for its overall attendance for a five session average of 2,804 fans per session. That includes two opening round games at campus sites followed by one quarterfinal session (two games) and one semifinal session (two games) as well as the tournament championship game at Valparaiso. It’s worth noting that in 2015 the nine team league only had eight eligible tournament teams as UWM was under a postseason ban for APR failures.

The 2014 tournament – hosted by Green Bay and eventually Wright State – had 21,253 total fans for a six session average of 3,542 per session. 2013 – again hosted by Valparaiso – had a total of 14,064 fans over six sessions for an average of 2,344 per session.

Compare that to the last three years of Motor City Madness in Detroit where attendance has been low, especially while being played in a cavernous NBA arena, but has still exceeded that of years past.  In 2016 at Joe Louis Arena, 26,155 fans attended for a five session average of 5,231 fans per game. With the addition of the women’s tournament to Detroit in 2017, attendance ticked up again to 29,240 total fans (5,848 average) as well as this past year when 30,290 fans (6,058 average) attended at the brand new Little Ceasers Arena.

The truth is as long as the tournament’s semifinals and championship games are being played on a Monday and Tuesday night, the fan experience and the atmosphere inside a neutral-site arena will not be as good as it would be if the those games were being hosted by the top seed.  The logistics make it more difficult for the already small traveling Horizon League fan bases to take off of work, find hotels, get to and from the games, ect.  The conference clearly values its media rights contract with ESPN and the opportunity to play the title game on the main ESPN network and the exposure that comes with it, but it will have to weigh that against the possibility of having the tournament on the weekend so more fans can attend.

A Friday to Sunday neutral site tournament would likely mean more fans in attendance and a better tournament atmosphere but could also possibly relegate the title game to a 10:00 AM start time on ESPN2 or another network all together.  A continued partnership with ESPN will likely keep the Tuesday night title game on national TV but in a potentially empty neutral-site venue.

It’s up to the league and its ad-hoc tournament committee to weigh the pros and cons, but it’s looking more and more likely that this upcoming March will be the last of Motor City Madness as we know it.



Horizon League Tournament attendance – last six years

(Source: NCAA Attendance Summary)
Average Attendance (Session)
Total Attendance
2013 9 6 2,344 14,064 Valparaiso
2014 9 6 3,542 21,253 Green Bay / Wright St
2015 8 5 2,804 14,019 Valparaiso
2016 10 5 5,231 26,155 Detroit (Neutral)
2017 10 5 5,848* 29,240* Detroit (Neutral)
2018 10 5 6,058* 30,290* Detroit (Neutral)

*Includes Horizon League women’s tournament



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