Horizon League

Where will the Horizon League Tournament end up?

With this likely being the final season of Motor City Madness in Detroit, the search for a new home for the Horizon League men’s and women’s conference basketball tournaments is underway.

The conference announced earlier this year that the Horizon League and Olympia Entertainment along with its Detroit-based promoter, 313 Presents, mutually agreed to end their five year agreement a year early following the 2019 tournament this season.

“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 a statement earlier this year. “We look forward to Motor City Madness in 2019 in a world class arena and are also excited about the future of our championships.”

So with the Detroit experiment likely in the rear view mirror, the conference has opened up the bid process to find a host for the tournament from 2020 through 2022 signaling that the tournament will stay at a neutral site venue for at least the next three years. It is possible that the league receives no acceptable bids and that the tournament is forced to return to campus sites as was the case from 2002 – 2015 before the current setup, but that is unlikely.

The Horizon League requested interested communities submit their declarations of intent to bid by November 1st with completed bids due November 30th.

Current conference cities can submit bids to host the tournament but the actual tournament venue may not be the home venue of a Horizon League team, according to the Horizon League’s bid guidelines. That means, for example, that the tournament could possibly be held in Milwaukee but it would need to take place at the Milwaukee Bucks new Fiserv Forum instead of UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena where UWM plays its home games.

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YSU shooting around at Motor City Madness. Photo via Mark Richmond on Twitter (@RichWha)

Tournament attendance is an important factor to the league moving forward. While attendance improved all three years in Detroit, it still was not enough.  It made for a bad visual on national television having a sparsely attended championship game in a cavernous NBA arena.

“Detroit has been a tremendous home for us and we look forward to continuing our partnership in 2019 to put on a great championship at Little Caesars Arena,” LeCrone said in a statement announcing the bid process. “We are also excited about the future of our championships as we write the next chapter in our League’s history with the goal of creating an outstanding student-athlete experience driven by attendance and community support.”

So with those guidelines in mind, what are some options for the Horizon League Tournament going forward?  Keeping mind that the venue cannot be the home arena for a conference team and that the league’s goal is boost attendance, here are some options throughout the Midwest.  Obviously some (or all?) will not bid for the tournament, but here are some venues that make sense:


NBA / NHL Arenas


It is my personal opinion that the league should not have the tournament at another cavernous pro sports arena.  Even with the upper deck curtained off, these type of arenas still find a way to make an 8,000 person crowd feel small.

If the Horizon League is dead set on having the tournament in Indianapolis, Bankers Life Fieldhouse would seem to be the venue that makes the most sense since IUPUI’s home venue – Indiana Farmers Coliseum – is not an option per bid guidelines. The 20,000 seat home of the Indiana Pacers is located only a few blocks away from the league’s headquarters and Indianapolis is a city built to host sporting events.

A major issue with Bankers Life is that the Big Ten Tournament is scheduled to be played there in 2020 and 2022 which likely makes the arena unavailable unless the Horizon League tournament was changed to a Thursday – Sunday format the weekend prior to the Big Ten’s run. The United Center in Chicago has a similar dilemma for the league since they are hosting the Big Ten Tournament in 2019 and 2021.  As the biggest arena in the Midwest, its 23,500 capacity probably eliminates it as a viable option. A second Chicago mega-option would be Allstate Arena and its 18,500 capacity located near O’Hare airport.

Milwaukee’s brand new Fiserv Forum is the newest arena in the country and its in-house promotions team has been going after any and all events to fill dates at the new building. Everything from bull riding to UFC to Disney on Ice has been booked to get people in the building and utilizing the team’s beer garden and plaza right outside the arena.  Its 17,500 capacity makes it a more intimate venue but it is still a large NBA venue, likely too big for the Horizon League’s needs.  Plus, Milwaukee is not a drivable distance for many fans in the league and does not have the same amount of flights available as Chicago or Detroit. UWM’s declining game attendance also shows that the Milwaukee area alone could probably not provide enough attendance to host the tournament.

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The Milwaukee Bucks new home – Fiserv Forum

Nationwide Arena in Columbus is an outside the box option for the league since four of the conference’s ten members are located in Ohio media markets (Cleveland State, Youngstown State, Wright State, and Northern Kentucky). It is the 20,000 seat home arena for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets but has hosted NCAA Tournament first round games several times.

Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena is likely not an option due to the MAC conference tournament being held there every year roughly the same time as the Horizon League’s tournament.  It is also theoretically possible that the league stays in Detroit at Little Caesars Arena under new contract terms, though that does not seem likely.


Non-league cities


If the Horizon League wants a truly neutral tournament, it should pick an arena that is not located in a current conference city.  Two cities in the league’s footprint with mid-sized arenas without conference teams would be Grand Rapids, Michigan and Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Opened in 1996, Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena seats 11,500 fans for basketball which seems like a perfect amount for the Horizon League Tournament’s needs. The question, though, would be if the Grand Rapids area could support the tournament by itself since it is not very close to any other conference schools.  The league depended on Detroit Mercy and Oakland to fill the seats at Motor City Madness and both schools failed to win games.  A Grand Rapids tournament would also likely need to rely on those two fan bases as well as attract casual sports fans in the area.

Fort Wayne is often talked about when Horizon League expansion is brought up, so it would make sense for a bid to be entered to have the tournament at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in downtown Fort Wayne. The venue itself is an old building that opened in 1952 and seats 13,000 people. It likely lacks the suites and amenities that the league would be looking for to host its corporate sponsors.  Fort Wayne also would have the same dilemma as Grand Rapids in attracting local fans to come watch a basketball tournament featuring teams that they have no loyalty or fandom towards.   Fort Wayne does offer a centralized location, though, and would be the fairest of all the options location wise.


Other options


One arena that makes a lot of sense is Chicago’s brand new Wintrust Arena, the 10,300 seat home of DePaul’s basketball teams and the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. The publicly owned arena is part of the city of Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center which is the largest convention space in North America.

Wintrust Arena boasts state of the art amenities and offers all the benefits of Chicago (easy driving / flying for league members and fans, plenty of hotel options and things to do) with a smaller, more intimate seating capacity than the United Center or Allstate Arena.

Wintrust Arena, DePaul, Notre Dame

Wintrust Arena (Photo via Associated Press)

A fourth Chicago option – Sears Centre – is located in suburban Hoffman Estates about 20 miles east of O’Hare Airport. Built in 2005, it is the home of the Windy City Bulls G-League team and seats 10,000 fans for basketball.

An intriguing, though unlikely, option could be Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.  Butler dominated the Horizon League for years before moving up to the Atlantic 10 and eventually the Big East.  If the league is set on Indianapolis hosting the tournament, with IUPUI’s venue not allowed and the Pacers arena potentially unavailable, Hinkle Fieldhouse would offer an interesting option for the league if it can get over Butler’s divorce from the league five years ago and if the Bulldogs athletic department is open to the idea.

There could be several other cities and arenas interested in hosting.  Dayton’s UD Arena hosts the NCAA Tournament First Four every year. There are multiple arena options in Cincinnati including US Bank Arena, Fifth Third Arena, and the Cintas Center. Youngtown has the Covelli Centre which is not the Penguins home arena.

It’s also possible that the league is forced to return to an all-campus site tournament if no suitable bid is found to host the tournament moving forward.

“We see this as a great opportunity to explore and forge community relationships within the geographical footprint of the Horizon League” said Committee Chair and UIC athletics director Garrett Klassy. “With nine of our 10 schools located in the top-70 media markets in the country, we are excited to begin what we expect to be a competitive bid process as we review all potential locations to identify what’s best for our student-athletes and fans.”

It is not known when or if the bidding cities will be made public, though it is a solid bet the tournament’s future could be decided by the time this year’s Motor City Madness rolls around in March.


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