March 2, 2016 11:03:08 AM
It's time for the Southeastern Conference to pick a site for its annual women's basketball tournament.
By the time most of your read this, the first games in this year's event in Jacksonville, Florida -- Alabama vs. LSU and Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt -- already will have been played. The five-day marathon comes on the heels of a 16-game regular season that seeded all 14 teams for the chance to earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Jacksonville is the 14th city to play host to the marquee event for what remains one of the nation's best women's basketball conferences. An event of this magnitude deserves a site that will show it off and a fan base that will create a great environment for the all of the games.
As challenging as that sounds, it is possible. The SEC can even do it in its backyard of Birmingham, Alabama.
Earlier this year, Ole Miss opened is $96.5-million facility, The Pavilion. In 2010-11, Auburn opened its $86-million Auburn Arena. Those costs pale in comparison to the $436.8 million out of an NCAA-record $455.8 million in revenues the SEC distributed to its 14 institutions. Each league member was scheduled to receive $31.2 million -- an increase of more than $10 million per school from last year's payout of $20.9 million per school.
Imagine if the SEC invested its revenue to build a multi-purpose arena in Birmingham, where its home office is located. The venue could play host to the men's and women's basketball, gymnastics, indoor track and field, and volleyball tournaments. If you wanted to go bigger, you could add a pool so you would be able to hold the annual swimming and diving tournament.
The SEC would be able to control all of the revenue from parking and concessions. It would be able to partner with the Alabama High School Athletic Association and the Alabama Independent School Association to hold events there. It wouldn't have to worry about the travel costs for sending league personnel to other cities. It also could hold showcase events with other leagues.
Imagine the possibilities.
Instead, the SEC continues to shuffle its women's basketball tournament to sites that can't attract crowds to match the enthusiasm for the event. Last year, North Little Rock, Arkansas, played host to the tournament and drew an overall attendance of 25,821, an average of 3,689.
As Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said Wednesday, bad weather contributed to the sub-par attendance figures. For comparison, Schaefer was an assistant coach at Arkansas the first time the tournament went west in 2003. At that time, then-Arkansas coach Gary Blair served as a wonderful host for the event and helped it draw a total attendance of 43,642 (an average of 7,274), which was surprising to some who had expressed concerns about how well the event would draw going that far west.
This year, the tournament has gone in the opposite direction. In May 2014, the SEC awarded the 2016 tournament to Jacksonville. It is the first time the SEC will hold the event in Florida.
The SEC has traveled east for the tournament with mixed results. The most recent stops were in 2013 and 2014, when the tournament was in Duluth, Georgia. Neither event drew more than a total attendance of 31,000.
Nashville, Tennessee, owns the top two attendance figures (51,036 in 2008; 46,130 in 2012). Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, will serve as host for the event from Feb. 28-March 4, 2018. A site for the 2017 women's tournament hasn't been announced.
So when will the shuffle stop? From Albany, Georgia (1987-1992) to Athens, Georgia (1984, 1986) to Baton Rouge, Louisiana (1981) to Chattanooga, Tennessee (1993-1997, 1999-2000) to Columbus, Georgia (1998) to Greenville, South Carolina (2005) to Knoxville, Tennessee (1980, 1983) to Lexington, Kentucky (1982) to Oxford (1985) to Memphis, Tennessee (2001) to Nashville, Tennessee (2002, 2004, 2008, 2011, 2012), the SEC women deserve a permanent home.
The same can be said for the SEC men, but the league appears to be taking steps in that direction. The men's tournament will be March 6-9 in Nashville. The tournament will return to Bridgestone Arena in 2017, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2023, 2024, and 2025. It will be at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis in 2018 and at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, in 2022.
Unfortunately, the NHL's Nashville Predators also call Bridgestone Arena home, which makes it challenging for the SEC to hold two basketball tournaments at the venue. That's why the SEC should build its own arena. It won't have to worry about picking cities or packing boxes to travel for so many events if it has an ideal arena right down the road from its home office, somewhere else in Birmingham, or, possibly, in Hoover.
Located in the heart of the SEC, there wouldn't be any complaints about one school gaining an unfair geographic advantage. The SEC also could take advantage of its ties in the local community to build support and attendance for as many events as it decides to host in its facility.
It's time. The SEC women's basketball tournament has seen too many empty buildings in too many cities. Pick a city, or build an arena in Birmingham. Invest the time and money and effort to make the women's tournament a true showcase, one that lives up to the league's desire to maximize the student-athlete experience.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
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