OPINION: The MAAC tournament needs to ditch neutral sites


Chris Dacey

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference postseason tournament has been held at a neutral site arena since 1990. It was then that the conference decided on Knickerbocker Arena, now the Times Union Center, to host all games for the men’s and women’s tournaments. Before 1990, the MAAC only had the semifinal and championship games at neutral sites, and the earlier rounds at campus sites.

For a mid-major conference that is playing its conference tournament on what is supposed to be a neutral floor, but is actually Siena’s home court, it really doesn’t look good with the majority of the postseason games having very few people watching. The only time that the Times Union Center fills up is when Siena plays, because it is the ‘home’ team.

MAAC Tournament semifinal game: Siena vs. Iona

The MAAC has tried other venues, but none have drawn as well as Albany. However, in 2018 the tournament had the lowest attendance since it came back to the capital region in 2015 according to the Albany Times Union.

The outlet also reported that the 2019 MAAC Tournament saw a slight rise in attendance with an increase of a little more than 2,000 fans. The report also says that the tournament costs an estimated $700,000 to run.

What should the conference do with its postseason tournament? Well, let’s look at other mid-major conferences to see how they go about conference tournaments.

The American East Conference and the Northeast Conference (NEC) don’t have any neutral site tournament games. The Mid-American Conference (MAC) and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) don’t have neutral site games until the semifinal and the championship games.

It makes sense. And I’ll tell you why.

What is the most popular time to watch college basketball? The answer is the month of March, because of what is deemed “March Madness.” Games during “March Madness” include both the conference and the NCAA tournaments. Many people, including students on college campuses, want to watch college basketball during this time.

The second MAAC semifinal: Monmouth vs. Canisius. This took place right after the Siena game.

Conferences like the America East and the NEC understand this, and let teams play on their home floor if they are the higher seed because they earned it. Also, it’s less likely that students at schools like Vermont or Robert Morris travel to a neutral arena to see the team lose in the first round, or perhaps win just one game in the tournament.

2019 NEC Men’s Basketball Tournament.

The fans of teams in the conferences that play their postseason tournaments on campus sites see March Madness right from the comfort of their home floor. Instead of booking a hotel for a weekend and figuring out travel plans, they can figure out where their team will be game by game and plan accordingly.

But heres what happens in the MAAC: If you are a fan of let’s say Iona, and the Gaels earned the first overall seed in the tournament, they could lose in the quarterfinals on Friday night. If you planned to say the whole weekend, you would be watching all the games Iona could have been in, if it hadn’t lost in the quarterfinals.  

That is the benefit of playing games on campus sites. But the argument against the campus sites is the home court advantage. Some conferences like the aforementioned MAC and SWAC don’t go to their neutral site games until the semifinals and championship games. That makes sense because of the importance of those games.

The MAC gives a three-day gap between the campus site tournament games and the neutral site games. This gives more time for fans to plan out the trip to Cleveland, and it makes more sense because there are fewer games that a team would play in. The shorter amount of time the team would be on the neutral site should be more appealing to fans. Spending just a weekend at the tournament instead of Thursday through Monday (at the MAAC Tournament) is far less of a time commitment. 

A lot like the MAC, the SWAC also uses campus sites until the neutral sites in the semifinals

In comparison, other winter sport conferences such as ECAC Hockey and Hockey East use the same model as the MAC and the SWAC, using campus sites of the higher seeds up until the semifinals of the conference tournament.

In talking to people who work around the Times Union Center, the MAAC doesn’t draw a crowd. A nearby parking garage attendant said that he is never really busy during the MAAC tournament unless Siena is playing. One of the ushers in the arena said the Albany Empire, an Arena Football League team, sells more tickets than most of the MAAC tournament games.

Starting next year, the MAAC tournament is moving to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. And just like the Times Union Center, Boardwalk Hall will host all the games for both the men’s and the women’s tournaments.

This was intriguing to some because of the legalized sports betting in New Jersey, but that new sports betting bill says no betting on amateur sports. So you can go to the MAAC tournament, but betting on those games is not legal. The state has banned betting on the Air Force Reserve Boardwalk Classic and the Boardwalk Battle, two events held early in the season with teams like Penn State and Tulane.

The closest MAAC school to this new venue is Monmouth. In my opinion, as a New Jersy native, Monmouth won’t draw fans to their MAAC tournament games as Siena has in Albany. Most college basketball fans in that area are bigger Rutgers fans than Monmouth fans, largely because of the Big Ten and the basketball that comes within that conference.

Monmouth played Iona in the 2019 MAAC Championship game in front of  2,123 people in Albany.

That is good for about 14 percent of what the Times Union Center can hold for a basketball game. To compare, Siena averaged above 5,000 fans at its home games in the Times Union Center.

For the women’s championship, there were a total 1,780 spectators for Quinnipiac and Marist. That’s good for about 12 percent of the arena’s seats.

So if the MAAC thinks having all postseason conference games on neutral sites makes sense, it might on paper but not in reality. Teams don’t get home court advantage (sans Siena), but getting fans to the games is tough, and that is shown though the years of playing in Albany.

The MAAC needs to look at other college basketball conferences similar to itself and start to explore alternate ways to handle the postseason tournament. The conference needs to improve attendance to postseason games.

Because unless Siena is playing, these conference tournament games are played in a pretty much empty Times Union Center, and it looks bad both on the MAAC and the teams playing in the games.