published Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Big-time tourneys going, going, gone?

EVENT IMPACT

FCS championship

game (1997-2009) $22.97 million

SEC women’s basketball

tourney (1993-97, 1999-00) $10.91 million

Southern Conference

basketball tourney 2 (2005, ’09) $2.05 million

NCAA women’s basketball

tourney (2004-05, ’09) $1.32 million

Source: Greater Chattanooga Sports & Events Committee

Chattanooga once created a sporting monster so sizable it infuriated the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.

Twelve years ago today, more than 12,000 spectators descended on the SEC women’s basketball tournament semifinals at McKenzie Arena, a facility that seats 11,218. The league kingpin at that time, Roy Kramer, was not among the hundreds who were turned away, but he did join the many who didn’t get to their seats on time.

“Commissioner Kramer got caught in the traffic jam,” said Leroy Fanning, who led Chattanooga’s efforts to land the SEC event. “We told him not to come a certain way, and he decided to anyway. He was livid. He came storming in, and everybody else was on such a high because we knew we had sold it out and that our tournament had gridlocked the city.”

Notable college basketball and football events have been held in Chattanooga for nearly two decades and have injected an estimated $37.25 million into the local economy, but there is nothing on the schedule after this week’s Southern Conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

“We may be at the end of having frequent, big-time college events,” said Scott Smith, the president of the Greater Chattanooga Sports & Events Committee. “We’re going up against a lot of bigger, nicer, pro-type arenas and, at some point, that will be a detriment to us. I don’t know if we’re there yet, but we will be eventually.”

McKenzie Arena hosted the SEC women’s tournament seven times from 1993 to 2000 before it moved to newer arenas. McKenzie has been an NCAA women’s tournament host site three times and is hosting this week’s Southern Conference tournament for a third time.

Finley Stadium housed the Football Championship Subdivision title game from 1997 to 2009 before it bolted last year to the Dallas suburb of Frisco. The title game will be held in Frisco for at least two more years, and the Southern Conference recently awarded a three-year deal for its basketball tournaments to Asheville, N.C.

The earliest basketball or football showcase that the local Sports Committee could try to obtain is an NCAA women’s basketball tournament first- and second-round site in 2013.

Of course, that event didn’t exactly leave a minty taste the last time around.

The NCAA women’s committee chose to send Tennessee and Vanderbilt to out-of-state venues in 2009 and dealt North Carolina, Purdue, Charlotte and Central Florida to McKenzie. The uninspiring quartet for local fans resulted in a $49,425 loss for the Sports Committee, the largest financial setback since its formation in 1992.

“We took a bath the last time, so it will have to be a very conservative bid,” Smith said. “Every NCAA women’s first- and second-round site except one lost money the last year we had it, so I would think everybody would be taking that same approach.”

AN AGING ARENA

In 1992, the last year before the SEC women’s basketball tournament came to Chattanooga for seven of the next eight years, it was held in Albany, Ga., where it had a total attendance of 12,318. In the tournament’s last two years inside McKenzie, it drew 43,221 and 41,185 fans.

“Virtually all these events have been events either nobody else wanted or the experience had not been good elsewhere,” former Sports Committee President Merrill Eckstein said. “We were able to come in and bid for them, making financial promises to stage them well, and we fulfilled those promises.”

Along with a rise in attendance at the SEC women’s tournament came an increase in economic impact. The four-day extravaganza produced $1.6 million for the city in 1997, $1.76 million in ’99 and $1.95 million in 2000, according to Sports Committee records.

Fanning, a longtime UTC professor who officiated every SEC tournament in Chattanooga, said the league’s senior women administrators did not want to leave because of the crowd support and the manner in which the city embraced the event. Yet there was no denying the configuration of the arena, which has just 3,900 seats in the gold or lower level that offers better viewing and premium pricing.

This week’s SEC women’s tournament will be held in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, which, compared to McKenzie, has 5,200 lower-level seats, 72 private suites and upper-level seating closer to the court.

“It was more about lower-level seats than anything,” Smith said. “You wanted some for local sponsors and for local people to buy, but then there were all those teams, and the teams weren’t happy with the number of lower-level seats they were getting. Especially back then, a lot of the women’s fans were elderly, and they struggled with the upper level at McKenzie.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m slamming McKenzie Arena, but the older that gets, the less of a chance we have of landing basketball events.”

McKenzie is in its 30th year of use and had a dazzling debut when the men’s programs at Tennessee and North Carolina visited in December 1982. The Mocs won their past two Southern Conference titles on their home floor in 2005 and 2009, and the Lady Mocs captured their lone NCAA tournament triumph in McKenzie with a memorable upset of Rutgers in 2004.

UTC athletic director Rick Hart said several weeks ago that the school is exploring possible upgrades to the arena, but it’s unclear whether it is too little, too late to attract quality college events.

“I’m still not sure for the future that we have an arena that is the right size,” Fanning said. “I think there are other events Chattanooga can attract, but not of the magnitude of the SEC women’s tournament or the football championship. At one time, this was the optimum-sized arena, and now it’s too small to be big and too big to be small.”

The departure of the Football Championship Subdivision title game last year came as a surprise to Chattanooga, which had become synonymous with the event in the same way Omaha has with the College World Series.

The game had a peak economic impact of $2.65 million in 2007, when Appalachian State University claimed a third straight national title, but produced just $919,250 in ’09 when Villanova University and the University of Montana were the participants.

“NOT OUR MISSION”

While college basketball and football events are pursued and welcomed by the Sports Committee, they are not paramount.

“That’s not necessarily our mission,” Smith said. “For us, it’s about room nights and economic impact, and if it happens to be events like those, then great. We do realize, though, that having a marquee event may not be important to our mission, but that it is as far as how we’re viewed in the community.”

Sporting events produced a record $25.1 million for the Chattanooga area in 2009 and an additional $23 million last year, according to the Sports Committee. The Football Championship Subdivision title game vanished in 2010, but the Head of the Hooch rowing regatta netted $4.75 million and the Athletic Championships Cheerleading added $1.5 million.

The National Softball Association Girls’ “A” World Series resulted in a $3.56 million economic impact in 2009, and the future of softball at The Summit complex in Ooltewah could bolster Chattanooga tourism as much as any other sport.

“These softball tournaments provide a lot more revenue for the city than the football game did,” said Annie Still, the director of sales at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel.

“The softball tournaments are in the last of July and the first of August, when tourism sort of comes to a screeching halt because schools are starting back, and those are huge national tournaments that can last a week. The football game was a one-night event.

“We just had as good a December as we would have if the football game were here,” Still said. “There is always something else out there. It may not be a sporting event, but there are always conventions and groups you can go after.”

The NCAA golf championships came to Chattanooga last year and produced an economic impact of only $60,000. Soccer continues to grow in popularity, as shown by the Chattanooga Football Club having crowds in excess of 3,000 at Finley, but Smith said Finley’s artificial surface hurts its chances with NCAA events.

So while sporting showcases will continue coming to town, there may not be as many from an NCAA standpoint. And when it comes to college football or basketball events, there may not be any for fans such as legendary East Ridge volleyball coach Catherine Neely, who volunteered at every SEC and NCAA tournament Chattanooga hosted.

“It’s tough, because it was really nice having those events,” Neely said. “It’s like Chattanooga was the place to come if you were a sports fan.”

SPORTING DOLLARS

Prominent college basketball and football events that have been staged in Chattanooga within the past 20 years and their total economic impact.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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