Game 083:(W4) Richmond 68, (E5) Rhode Island 60 Atlantic 10 First Round Wednesday, March 9, 2005 U.S. Bank Arena - Cincinnati, OH
After driving through a snowstorm in the West Virginia mountains to make it to Cincinnati in time for the A-10 first round, I arrived at the riverfront U.S. Bank Arena about 15 minutes prior to the start of the noon session. I approached the ticket window, and asked for the worst seat in the house.
"Twenty-five dollars," the nice lady responded.
"Twenty-five dollars?" I repeated in question form, my eyes popping out of my socket and expanding to six times their normal size, a buzzer hinking in the background. She just smiled smugly, and spoke the price for a second time.
"Is that for all day?"
"First two games," she replied. "The evening session is the same price."
Maybe I was so surprised because I've been attending A-10 tournaments for the better part of a decade. Back when it was in Philly, you could get a free ticket to a quadrupleheader with a five-pack of subway tokens. The Daily News tabloid would get in on the fun, publishing a special section with all the wire stories they could find, praising anyone who had the endurance to make it through four low-seed games and providing reading material so that folks trapped in the Spectrum all day would be entertained between games. I was one of those people.
Then in 2003, the A-10 moved its hoops festival out of town, claiming that they weren't making enough money in Philadelphia. They placed it in Dayton, home of the UD Flyers. Although there was an overwhelming home-court advantage for a certain team, Dayton was a wonderful host. They'd charge five bucks for both of the two first-round sessions to ensure big crowds, and bring in boisterous schoolkids by the busload. Last year, there were over 9,000 fans there to see faraway teams like Duquesne and St. Bonaventure and Massachusetts muddle through, and folks without rooting interests picked favorites. The city has no problem getting excited for basketball teams from exotic locales - it's where they play the 64-vs.-65 play-in game, after all.
But that wasn't good enough for the conference. Last year, they struck a two-year deal to have the bracket play out in Cincinnati. It was a spectacular and well-organized bid, everyone agreed. And the Queen City had plenty of tournament-hosting experience; Conference USA was there last year, before departing to Memphis' gleaming FedEx Forum.
Nobody denied the reasons for the A-10's decision. "The tournament is financially driven," Duquesne's AD said after the decision went down. But for a fan like me, it's not a money issue. Squeezing folks for $25 for a pair of qualification games is a big wad of spit in the eye of the proud tradition that is the A-10 first round.
I left the ticket window, walked counter-clockwise around the arena. I saw a customer propping the door open to get a quick smoke break, and grabbed the door as he was going back in. I quickly moved over to one of the many U.S. Bank auto-tellers in the facility - after pretending to press the digits, I saw that nobody had noticed me enter. I slunk into the 15,794-seat seating bowl, which was empty and quiet except for a few hundred people. It turns out the chair I chose belonged to someone else, a Dayton fan - so I chatted him up and scored a free ducat to the evening session from a thick stack, an allocation given to him by a banker friend back in Pittsburgh.
So I've got your $50 right here, Cincinnati. You may be a great bidder, but you've become a fat and lazy tournament host. I've seen cities like Dayton, Binghamton and Staten Island gather themselves up and offer eager and energetic hospitality for Division I tourneys, but you're mailing it in these days.
Why else would you play Semisonic's "Closing Time" during warmups? Or have your P.A. announcer refer to St. Bonaventure's Isaiah Carson as "Isaiah Thomas"? Or have a center-court scoreboard that blinked awkwardly through the afternoon session, only to be shut off for the two games at night (forcing patrons to crane their necks 180 degrees at the small side displays if they wanted to know the score)? Why would your local sports section's page one proclaim the arrival of the conference with only a 18-point pull-phrase - in the middle of a story about St. Joseph's? Sure, you put up streetlight banners, but you don't really care anymore. You've been there, and you've done that.
As if inspired by the city, the Richmond Spiders mailed in their performance on this day. Tragically starcrossed Rhode Island, Murphy's Rams, a promising team ripped apart by injury and misfortune, led early. They sped away to an 11-0 lead after the tip, and were up 43-37 with 13 minutes left in the game. But UR had watched all the game tapes - they knew that URI would run out of gas eventually. And they did - a 17-2 gamebreaker of a run was executed without even a glint of sweat on the Spider players' bodies.
Richmond was a school that helped make the A-10 the A-12, and the league become the A-14 next year when Saint Louis and Charlotte join the club. Southern and western expansion isn't being done for fun, there are dollars to be made. The Atlantic 10 sold its soul, but they didn't get much for it - it's the TV rights and sponsorships and tourney ticket sales that bring in the wheelbarrows of cash. Me, I'm holding out hope that the 2005 tournament is a financial disaster.
Money talks, and I don't have very much. So I'm offering this up to deaf or tin ears, but it's time to bring the Atlantic 10 tournament back to where it belongs. There are three teams in Philadelphia, and that's where the league offices are. I know it didn't work out last time, but we can do better. Give us a second chance, we'll work something out, promise. Just please come on back home.