By Craig Pearson
TERRE HAUTE — Last year’s first Missouri Valley Conference Tournament to take place on a neutral court was a “dramatic first step,” league commissioner Doug Elgin said while watching a semifinal game last year in St. Charles Family Arena.
The total attendance was 9,647 in the first of a two-year deal with the arena — a deal that has options for future years, Elgin said.
The attendance total was not significantly larger in 2007 in Knapp Center at Des Moines, Iowa, with 13,816 fans in total.
The 2005-06 tournament in Springfield, Mo., was the sixth best all-time for total fans in the 23-year history of the tourney at 24,256. That season’s turnout was helped by a large contingent of fans traveling to see top-seeded Indiana State, which lost to host team Missouri State in the title game.
ISU coach Jim Wiedie said that his program’s fans — the Sycamores’ home attendance was second in the MVC at 4,100 per game this season — have shown they will travel and he mentioned Tuesday that Illinois State, Drake and Missouri State have also exhibited that.
“Can everybody else? Can those other schools get their fans over there?” Wiedie asked. “If that’s the case, I think we’re going to be in good shape and continue to grow [the tournament].”
Elgin thinks the 11,000-seat Family Arena is “the perfect size for growth.
“I think we can grow this tournament,” he said. “I think it’s a spectacular first step as a league. Every administrator, every coach I’ve talked to is very positive about the experience, from the hotels … the building itself is very, very nice.”
Wiedie was pleased with the outcome of last year’s tourney, citing the fact that the top four seeds reached the semifinals.
“I think for the first year it was a big success,” Wiedie said during Tuesday’s coaches’ teleconference. “You give your best teams the best opportunity on a neutral site. I think that’s what we’re all looking for is you make it as fair as possible and get a true representation of your best team or best teams coming out of the conference tournament.”
The Sycamores fan base appears stable, and they had a solid turnout for last year’s first-round game in St. Charles. But four MVC teams — fifth-seeded Bradley, Evansville, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois — averaged less than 1,000 fans per home game this season.
“You’ve got to grow the fan base [for the tournament], and that’s going to be the key is it’s going to come down to dollars,” Wiedie said. “Are you financially [as a conference] going to be able to support it? I don’t think any of us want to go back to on-campus sites. I think that’s a major advantage for the host team.”
Elgin was optimistic about the growth potential last year, but the struggling economy could have an adverse effect.
“Like with the men, when teams have success and bring bigger crowds and more people experience what St. Charles and St. Louis has to offer, they’ll keep coming back,” he said. “Now, I think the more teams that have a solid traveling party [the better we’ll be].”
“Indiana State is a key program that has really been a leader at other campus sites and here.”
Elgin hopes to keep the tournament on a neutral site.
“It’s our intention to make this a long ride, a very long ride,” he said.