ALBANY — Next year, the NCAA women’s basketball tournament is back at Times Union Center for another regional.
Then, in 2020, the men’s tournament returns with first and second round games after nearly two decades away from New York’s capital.
Nothing is certain, but Bob Belber — SMG regional manager of Times Union Center — said Monday there is enthusiasm about the arena putting together future bids for both NCAA basketball tournaments. While interest in bringing back the men’s tournament has seemingly only increased each year since Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse won a couple games in Albany on way to winning the 2003 national title, the past few days’ success with regional action of the women’s tournament was resounding enough to make decision-makers take notice.
“We definitely will continue to bid on them just as aggressively as we have in the past,” Belber said, “and maybe even more aggressively, now that we’ve seen how successful it can be.”
Attendance for this year’s Albany Regional, which ended with UConn clinching its spot in the Final Four, surged past 20,000. In all, attendance for the two days of games was 20,180 — up significantly from the 15,945 the same event drew in 2015 at Times Union Center. Belber said the goal for this year’s event was to sell 16,000 tickets between the two days of games.
“I think the big difference from 2015 to this year is we had good word of mouth from 2015,” said MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor, whose conference hosted the event along with Siena College. “People had come here and it was enjoyable.”
This year’s games were easy to sell, too. The Albany Regional included upstart Buffalo, brand-name Duke, defending national champion South Carolina and dynastic UConn.
“It was a perfect storm,” Siena athletic director John D’Argenio said. “Certainly, UConn is UConn and has such name recognition, but then to get a New York state school in there helped a lot.”
Those teams also included South Carolina senior A’ja Wilson, the nation’s best player; UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, the most successful coach in the sport’s history; and Dawn Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medal winner as a player who is set to take over coaching the USA Basketball Women’s National Team from Auriemma.
Staley praised Albany as a host site multiple times during her stay in Albany. That was despite her team essentially playing two road games when it came to crowd support, since the Gamecocks played fan favorites Buffalo and UConn.
“I thought the crowd was terrific. Obviously, it didn’t favor us, but just the atmosphere created here, I thought everybody that organized getting people in the stands did a great job filling it and it felt like a postseason place. . . . So a lot of energy was in the gym,” Staley said after her team’s win Saturday against Buffalo. “I take my hat off to the organizers. I thank the MAAC for doing a great job at getting people in the stands.”
Facility-wise, Times Union Center is in much better shape to attract future bids, too. Multi-million dollar renovations continue — fixing the arena’s concourse is up next, and Belber said that should be done sometime this fall — and their promise helped Albany secure its 2019 and 2020 games.
“The NCAA has seen those enhancements,” Belber said, “and they like them.”
And, Ensor said, the NCAA has responded well to the way events are run at Times Union Center.
“There’s a track record here of doing them well,” Ensor said. “They want things run doing X-Y-Z, so we do X-Y-Z. We don’t try to do A-B-C.”
The Albany Regional featured better attendance than any other NCAA women’s tournament regional, but the big prize remains attracting NCAA men’s tournament games. In a crowded Northeast market, Ensor said it’s a “good expectation” for Albany to host men’s tournament games once or twice a decade going forward.
Belber said he is focused on working toward the more optimistic take.
“My hope,” Belber said, “is we can eventually get [the men’s tournament] here once every five years — maybe once every six.”
As for the women’s tournament? While it didn’t feature the sold-out games the men’s tournament seems likely to guarantee in Albany, it did more than well enough to guarantee future bids.
“This event has grown and it’s much more popular than it was in the past,” Belber said. “Our market has shown we can draw big numbers for it.”