Waite: Capital Region proves it can host the Big Dance

Basketball crowd

Saint Mary’s fans cheer during NCAA men’s basketball tournament against VCU at MVP Arena in Albany on Friday, March 17, 2023.

WEIGHING IN – If the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament comes back to Albany this decade, we may all have Krause’s chocolates to thank. 

That’s because ahead of Sunday’s second-round games, MVP Arena General Manager Bob Belber brought candy from the famed chocolate shop on Central Avenue in Albany to thank some of the NCAA representatives who were in town this weekend. 

A couple hours before the tip of UConn vs. St. Mary’s, Belber said he had just talked to Ron English, director of Men’s Basketball Championships at the NCAA, who told him the chocolates were a big hit. 

“We shook hands, and he says, ‘Bob, I gotta tell you, those candies are the best chocolates I’ve ever had. I’ve already had four or five pieces,’” Belber told me Sunday.  

How’s that for sweetening the deal? 

Andrew Waite - Weighing InHokey as it may seem, that’s the kind of small touch that could make a big difference as Albany – and the greater Capital Region – puts in a bid this fall to host the NCAA men’s tournament sometime between 2027 and 2030. (Sites are already selected through 2026, but, thankfully, our area will get another round of excitement next year when the women’s tournament rolls into town.) 

With capacity crowds energizing MVP Arena all weekend, our area proved that two decades after hosting the men’s Regional Round in 2003, we’re in an even better position to host an event such as March Madness. So on top of the big pieces already in place, including that we now have some of the infrastructure we lacked in 2003, such as renovated or new hotels, perhaps the smaller touches will be what stick with the NCAA tournament committee members as they consider whether the Capital Region will host another men’s tournament in the near-ish future. 

Given the estimated $9 million to $11 million economic impact brought by the tournament, not to mention the general buzz rebounding around our region all week, it’d be a shame if we had to wait another 20 years for the men’s tournament to come back to Albany, especially after the tournament’s scheduled return in 2020 was delayed as a result of the pandemic. 

  “Arguably, it could be considered the biggest event to play your building, possibly not just for the year, but for a stretch of years,” said Belber on a week when “The Boss” himself, Bruce Springsteen, had been set to play the arena before needing to postpone the show until September. “Nothing puts Albany on the map like NCAA championship events.”

Belber believes the small things are often what matter most, whether it’s the phone chargers at players’ lockers, or the MVP Arena staff’s hospitality.   

Truly, I think these details represent an X-factor distinguishing our region from other bidders. The people who live here are at once the down-to-earth sort who aren’t going to unnecessarily upsell or wine and dine, but we understand the value of small gestures. We’re also professionals of all kinds with critical expertise in everything from security to policy to technology. 

In addition, we’re genuinely appreciative when major events such as March Madness come to our backyard, considering bigger hubs like Boston and New York City are so close. Fans demonstrated this appreciation all weekend by showing up in full force to the early game on Friday afternoon, and keeping the enthusiasm up through late games both nights. 

“We enjoyed having you,” Kurtis Breed, marketing director at The City Beer Hall, which is little more than a 3-point shot from MVP Arena, said he’d tell NCAA representatives in an appeal to bring the tournament back. “We had great guests, we created a great experience downtown. Obviously, with all the hotels right next door, it’s a perfect fit for downtown.” 

When NCAA reps consider potential tournament sites, they look at everything. They walk all parts of the arena, they travel the city streets, they drive around the community. 

“They want to see what the fan is seeing,” Belber said. 

I think they saw a lot to like this past weekend. They saw crowds of 14,000 truly into every game, despite no major upset or nail-biting finish. They also saw knowledgeable local basketball fans cheering as loudly as they could every time the University of Connecticut’s Andre Jackson Jr., who is from Amsterdam and played his high school hoops at Albany Academy, even came remotely close to the ball. 

Outside the arena, there was plenty of energy, too. At the steps of the building’s atrium, a festive street fair lined South Pearl Street, featuring food vendors and a giant modern screen showing NCAA games.

Around town, bars and restaurants welcomed record crowds. 

For instance, The City Beer Hall saw three times the sales revenue and crowd volume it saw the previous weekend, when the St. Patrick’s Day Parade brought its own fair share of people downtown, Breed said. 

Judging from the photos our Erica Miller snapped, actor Bill Murray, whose son is an assistant coach for UConn, certainly seemed to be enjoying himself. 

None of this means Albany is a perfect host. Eventually, the more than 30-year-old seats inside the arena need to be modernized. And the mobbed concourse felt better equipped to handle a sparser, say, professional lacrosse crowd, than jam-packed basketball playoff games. In addition, there was much talk about the bathroom situation, though perhaps that’s just because men weren’t used to seeing lines four times longer than the lines for the women’s room. 

But even if the Capital Region has room for improvement, we have proved we have what it takes to host and that we’re willing to adapt. Since the men’s tournament was here in 2003, MVP Arena has seen at least $43 million in renovations. Highlights include the sparkling atrium, which makes a dazzling first impression, and modernized locker rooms to give players and coaches a more comfortable experience. 

In addition, our region now includes high-end hotels – such as the Renaissance in downtown Albany or the Mohawk Harbor Marriott in Schenectady – that can support an event such as March Madness, which draws roughly 70% of its attendees from out of town. 

There’s no reason to think the region wouldn’t be an even better host next time. Maybe that means building another hotel or two. Or maybe it means offering a more regional approach, possibly with formal fan festivities at Rivers Casino in Schenectady on the day between games. As local leaders put together their NCAA bid, which will be decided upon next year, they will no doubt consider what they learned from this weekend and what they think they can do better. But sometimes the greatest appeal is to simply sincerely express gratitude. That’s what Belber’s chocolates and handwritten thank you notes were all about. 

In that spirit, let me offer my appreciation to the NCAA, small as it may be. 

Like so many people I observed, I’m thankful to have been able to share the weekend with good friends. In 2003, my buddies and I were teenagers who skipped class to check out the practices ahead of the actual games. This weekend we were fathers of young kids, so happy to make more lasting memories at a top-tier sporting event that had come to our hometown.  

Is there anything quite like a sweet alley-oop, like the kind dished by Andre Jackson with just under 11 minutes to go in Sunday’s game, to deliver the pure joy and excitement that brings us all back to childhood? 

None of us are getting any younger, so I hope the NCAA gives us all another opportunity to host the Big Dance soon. 

After all, it’s no small thing to feel like a kid again. 

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: -News-, -Sports-, Andrew Waite, Business, College Sports, News, Opinion, Opinion, Schenectady County, Sports

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