It’s an audition. That’s the simplest way to explain Memphis serving as host for the inaugural American Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament March 12-15 at FedExForum.
The city would love a callback and eventually to become the new conference’s permanent, or at least predominate, tournament home. And AAC officials perhaps made a calculated decision to hold the first league tournament here.
“They felt first impression was so important,” said University of Memphis coach Josh Pastner. “They knew they were going to get a crowd regardless if Memphis is in the game or not. Having that look on television is very important for the conference and for TV so it’s critical we come out and support the tournament.”
Downtown Memphis is preparing for plenty of basketball crowds this month, starting with the inaugural American Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament next week at FedExForum.
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
Said Malvin Gipson, director of the Memphis Sports Council: “If you look at the other cities and venues in the conference, I’m not trying to put any of the other cities down … but Memphis is a basketball mecca and we’ve got FedExForum.”
During the Conference USA days, Memphis was home to the men’s conference basketball tournament five years in a row – from the 2004-2005 season through the 2008-2009 season. The tournament was also held here in other years, the last being at the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season. But with Memphis leaving for the AAC, C-USA officials gave last year’s tournament to Tulsa, Okla.
“An event this size is a big deal for us,” said John Oros, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. “New York is New York.”
Meaning, while Memphis is not Tulsa or El Paso, Texas, the site of this year’s C-USA Tournament, it’s not New York City and FedExForum isn’t Madison Square Garden, the longtime home of the Big East Tournament.
Oros anticipates the four-day AAC Tournament to have a total attendance of 40,000-45,000 and about 18,000 out-of-town visitors. Estimated dollars flowing into the city those four days: $13 million to $15 million. Downtown hotels, Oros says, already are sold out.
“We’ve got some great teams coming in,” Oros said and five, including No. 20 Memphis, are ranked in the Top 25.
“They have rabid fans that follow their teams,” Oros said. “SMU, Louisville, Cincinnati and hopefully Connecticut, bring large contingencies of people that have never been here before. Hopefully, they’ll stay all four days and not leave if their team loses.”
To be sure, this first AAC Tournament will have a much different – stronger – basketball flavor than the last C-USA Tournament here.
“It’s elite-level basketball,” said Tigers senior guard Geron Johnson. “There are potential pros out there.”
A lot of the schools in C-USA simply were not basketball schools and that showed in the vast sections of empty seats when the tournament was held in venues other than Memphis, and even in non-Memphis games here the last time around.
“Conference USA, toward the end, not that many teams traveled,” Oros said. “The original C-USA, six or seven teams traveled.”
Among the members of the original C-USA: Cincinnati and Louisville. Small world.
Oros says that some of things they did for C-USA Tournaments will be kept in place for the AAC. For example, the appreciation luncheon for coaches, athletic directors, city officials, and assorted corporate people and VIPs. But there also will be enhanced social media elements to help direct fans to area attractions and restaurants offering deals.
Johnson chimes in and recommends Blues City Café for catfish. Senior Memphis guard Michael Dixon is partial to Ching’s Hot Wings on Getwell, but says out-of-towners needn’t feel pressured to eat Memphis barbecue.
“Kansas City barbecue is probably better,” said Dixon, who is from Kansas City.
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament South Regional (two Sweet 16 games and one Elite Eight game) will be at FedExForum on Thursday, March 27, and Saturday, March 29. Oros says that could be another $10 million coming to town, but the value goes far beyond money spent at restaurants, attractions and hotels.
“It’s tremendous advertising,” he said, noting the national TV exposure. “There’s no way we could pay for that kind of coverage.”
Gipson says the city will continue to pursue future NCAA Tournaments and “we’re in the process of recruiting other (AAC championship) events like baseball, volleyball, track and field and soccer. In C-USA we hosted some of these events in the past.”
The site of next year’s men’s AAC conference tournament will be under discussion at the league’s spring meetings, Gipson said, but a decision could be delayed until August.
“Getting these tournaments is very competitive,” Oros said. “We’d like to put on a good show so they consider us for next year.”
Pastner, as always, is optimistic.
“We want the tournament back next year and we’re the most logical place for the tournament to happen,” he said. “We do have the best fans and we’re gonna get the best support.”