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Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022

March Madness Ball in Our Court

San Diego is about to go mad — in a way that’s sure to make its tourism and hospitality industries quite happy.

March Madness, otherwise known as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and arguably the most exciting multiday competition in sports, is coming to Viejas Arena next month. It will bring eight Division I men’s basketball teams to the arena on the campus of San Diego State University for the second and third rounds of the popular tournament that begins with 68 teams and crowns the champion for the 2013-14 season.

And while none of the teams competing here are known yet as Selection Sunday — the day the tournament field is announced — is March 16, a few things are certain:

• Sadly for San Diego State Aztecs fans, the local team won’t be playing here because of a rule preventing home teams enjoying an unfair advantage.

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• And there will be major upsets.

In a way, just winning the bid to host these early round games was an upset win for SDSU’s Viejas, which last hosted NCAA tournament games in 2006. Several years ago the National Collegiate Athletic Association changed its minimum requirement on venue size to 12,000 seats, said John David Wicker, SDSU’s senior associate athletic director. That seemingly disqualified Viejas; although it has 12,414 seats, after subtracting all the seats needed for media and officials, its fan capacity is closer to 10,000.

“For the second and third rounds [the NCAA] just wanted to stay in some of the smaller cities instead of going to the big NBA arenas and big domes,” Wicker said, adding that NCAA officials knew the Viejas venue worked well the last two times the tournament came here in 2001 and 2006.

The seven other cities hosting the second and third rounds are Buffalo, N.Y.; Milwaukee; Orlando, Fla.; Raleigh, N.C.; San Antonio; St. Louis; and Spokane, Wash.

Room for Fans

One key criterion San Diego met easily was having plenty of hotel rooms for the eight teams, all the media, officials and the teams’ visiting fans, Wicker said.

Each team alone needs 50 to 75 rooms, he said.

The Manchester Grand Hyatt will host one of the eight teams, with the contract calling for 100 rooms over three to four days, said Nick Ramirez, the hotel’s sales manager.

“As soon as the teams are announced, the phones start ringing and all the fans start to pile in,” he said — similar to what occurs for the two college football bowl games at Qualcomm Stadium each December.

In all, the tournament could attract more than 3,000 room nights, and visitor spending on restaurants and services could be in the millions of dollars, said Kyle Jones, sales manager for the San Diego Sports Commission, which worked with SDSU — the designated host school — to help land San Diego’s place in the hoops tournament.

“It’s an event that we want to try get over a normal cycle,” Jones said, referring to a rotation of every four or five years.

Benefits Tangible and Intangible

It’s difficult to assess the economic impact from the two rounds at Viejas since so much depends on the colleges invited and whether many of them stick around if their schools are eliminated in the first round, said Scott Minto, director for SDSU’s sports MBA program.

Suffice to say that many of those visiting from beyond the county are usually well-connected alumni who are large donors and tend to be bigger spenders, Minto said.

Moreover, assuming Viejas hosts West regional games, fans of the winning teams from the action here could extend their stay a few days before following their teams up Interstate 5 the next week for the regional semifinals and final in Anaheim’s Honda Center, said Jay Paris, a longtime local sportswriter now working for the Mighty 1090 Sports Radio station.

And then there’s the invaluable publicity that the city will get during breaks and timeouts when the broadcast will do “beauty shots” of the local scenery, Minto said.

“Anytime you’re getting national TV coverage, and the games are broadcast on CBS and the Internet, you’re getting coverage of the city of San Diego,” he said. “You see scenes of the Midway, the Pacific Ocean and the beaches, the bay, the skyline. … All of that makes the city look like a great place to visit.”

The ‘Best Two Days in Sports’

One benefit of hosting the rounds two and three is that doing so involves eight teams playing six games over three sessions, whereas subsequent rounds involve four schools and three games.

Minto called the first two days of the NCAA tournament “the two best days in sports.”

“It’s really nonstop action,” he said. “There are those Cinderella stories, and everybody’s got some stake in the games, whether they’re alumni rooting for their school or they’re betting on a team. It draws people in like no other event.”

Paris, who has covered a few tournaments, said it’s an event that never ceases to inspire.

“It’s all the excitement and the enthusiasm of the fans of the schools that are participating,” Paris said. “The great thing about the NCCA tournament is that everybody has a chance.”

Rise of the Aztecs

One thing that makes this year’s tournament more compelling for Aztec fans is the prospect of getting to root for them at a nearby venue. Should the team get placed in the West region and move past the second round, it could be in the regional rounds in Anaheim on March 27 and 29.

Noted ESPN college basketball analyst Joe Lunardi projected the Aztecs as the second seed in the West regional in a recent edition of his “Bracketology.” Lunardi, in his Feb. 17 update online, placed SDSU in Spokane for rounds two and three, setting up a potential regional final against the West’s projected top seed Arizona, which he predicts will play in San Diego for rounds two and three. Arizona is responsible for the Aztecs’ only nonconference loss.

Credit Coach Steve Fisher as the primary reason that the SDSU men’s basketball program has become such a success, but it took a while to turn things around, Paris said.

“The story goes that when Coach Fisher first got here, there were so few students going to the games, he’d walk around campus with a fistful of tickets and hand them out to anyone willing to take them,” he said. “Now every game’s a sellout, and you can’t get one.”


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