BOZICH: SEC's Hoops' Indifference Makes Louisville Best Tourney Spot
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – If the Southeastern Conference is serious about this idea that its men's basketball tournament is as important as the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, then the league needs to park its basketball party in Louisville and watch the turnstiles spin.
Stop pretending that people in Nashville care about basketball when they don't. Roll video from last March from that dreary hockey facility in downtown Nashville – the video where producers tried to hide the empty seats.
Stop running a misdirection play because the SEC isn't fooling anybody. The SEC goes to Nashville because Nashville is as close as the league can come to the University of Kentucky and the money the Wildcats' fervent fans will spend on post-season basketball without actually putting the tournament in Kentucky.
The SEC can park the tournament 45 miles from the state line without hearing howls that the event is being staged in UK's driveway.
Why would the SEC give the tournament a 'primary' home in a town that has been primarily indifferent toward basketball?
Play your tournament in a town where basketball matters in an arena that was built to showcase basketball, not hockey.
It's really that simple, although the SEC poo-bahs insist on making it complicated. SEC commissioner Mike Slive played the trial balloon game Tuesday at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla.
He said the league was considering a "primary," site for its men's basketball tournament, similar to the way that the football championship game has been anchored in Atlanta and the baseball tournament is always played in Birmingham.
Atlanta adores football. Birmingham loves baseball. The town just built a new park for its minor-league team.
Nashville shrugs at basketball.
Trust me. I've visited Bridgestone Arena – for the SEC tournament and the NCAA Tournament. If Kentucky is playing, the place is packed. If the Wildcats are absent, Mike Rice coach could throw a basketball down Broadway as hard as he wanted without fear of hitting anybody.
Mississippi defeated Florida in the SEC championship game last March. Official attendance: 12,138 – although I'm guessing that was tickets sold. In Nashville, they call that a crowd. I call it a scalper's nightmare.
For that, Nashville gets rewarded?
Sure, but that's because the other sites that have hosted the SEC Tournament have backed away faster than a freshman cornerback in man coverage.
The SEC played the tournament in New Orleans in 2012. When Louisiana State, the alleged host school, played Kentucky in the Tigers' opening game, LSU fans were outnumbered maybe 100-to-1. LSU coach Trent Johnson was so impressed that he jumped to the job at TCU as quickly as possible.
Once upon a time, the Georgia Dome was a wonderful spot. But that was 20 years ago when Nolan Richardson had the Arkansas Razorbacks in serious pursuit of Final Fours and national championships. Those days have disappeared. So have Razorback fans.
Is there any reason to discuss Tampa or Birmingham? Not when Louisville has an arena with amenities those two places cannot approach – and the KFC Yum! Center needs the dates and additional revenue.
Billy Donovan has built a consistent Top 10 program at Florida, but Gators have never made the SEC Tournament a destination social and sporting event. Tennessee has its moments of intense curiosity. But only moments.
Everybody else in the SEC is mostly pretending. And has been for several years.
Check the SEC men's basketball attendance numbers for this season. Average home attendance declined by more than 8 percent. Eight of the 12 schools that were also SEC members during the 2012 season attracted fewer fans.
Getting more SEC schools to actually commit to embracing basketball would be the most effective way of upgrading the men's tournament.
Attending the semifinals of the Big East Tournament, when Connecticut played Syracuse and Louisville met Notre Dame, showed me how magical an arena can become when it is stuffed with fans from four different schools. Ditto for the United Center in Chicago last March when Wisconsin played Indiana followed by Michigan State against Ohio State.
But that's not the DNA of the Southeastern Conference – and it likely never will be. Basketball matters greatly at Kentucky. It matters relatively little at the other 13 schools.
Until that changes, the SEC should go ahead and bring its men's basketball tournament to a place where people will actually spend money and fill the arena – Louisville.
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