Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena will host the Colonial Athletic Association men's basketball tournament for three years, starting in 2014, officials from the city and league confirmed Wednesday.
The city now offers a centralized location for the conference, CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said, and more amenities than long-time host Richmond.
"It's closer for many of our fans," Yeager said after a news conference at Visit Baltimore's offices downtown. "And while we hope they're there to watch basketball, we realize that they're focused on having a good weekend. Baltimore offers great shopping, dining and other entertainment."
Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has pushed for the city to host more destination sporting events, such as the Grand Prix of Baltimore, in hopes of stimulating downtown business.
"Securing the event affirms the belief that Baltimore is a great host city for a variety of major sporting events, and we anticipate bringing more of them to the city," she said in a statement.
The CAA tournament, which takes place over four days, has drawn more than 42,000 attendees in each of the past five years according to the conference. A recent study shows it had a $5.8 million yearly economic impact on Richmond. Baltimore officials envision an impact of $6.5 million per year.
But the tournament also took place in what was formerly the heart of the league. Fans from nearby VCU would flock to the event, and Old Dominion fans needed to drive less than two hours from Norfolk. VCU now plays in the Atlantic-10, and Old Dominion will join Conference USA in July 2013.
What was once seen as a southern league now stretches from Boston to Charleston, S.C. Fans of 2012 tournament runner-up Drexel will have a shorter trip from Philadelphia. George Mason, a perennial conference power, is just over an hour from Baltimore. So is the Delaware. Seven of the CAA's 10 member schools are within 250 miles of Baltimore, and 370,000 alumni of conference schools reside with 100 miles, according to the CAA.
Yeager said the CAA has long hoped Baltimore would show interest in hosting the tournament. He toured 1st Mariner Arena "15 or 20 years ago" but did not find city leaders receptive to hosting the event.
That changed when Towson athletic director Mike Waddell got involved.
Officials from the CAA member schools met last spring to consider their future in a relentlessly evolving college sports world. They also needed to decide where to play the end-of-season men's basketball tournament.
Names of cities and arenas were thrown out by those in attendance. Richmond, which had hosted the event since 1990, appeared the favorite to retain the league's signature event. Each year, the CAA tournament launches one team into the NCAA tournament with a chance to snatch national relevance, as George Mason and VCU did with Final Four runs in 2006 and 2011, respectively.
Waddell felt dismayed. No one had mentioned Baltimore. He left determined to see whether the city had any interest.
On a golf trip organized by Donald C. Fry, president of the greater Baltimore committee, Waddell ended up rooming with Visit Baltimore president Tom Noonan. They flipped the television to an NBA game and discussed the need for more high-level basketball competition in Baltimore.
"That's really how it began, and the people at the city really saw the value right away and began putting together a proposal," Waddell said.
The CAA considered 30 possible sites, but voted last week to select Baltimore over a return to Richmond.
First Mariner Arena, which seats about 11,000 for basketball, owns a court that will be about 15 years old by the time the tournament arrives. But there's been little wear on it. The arena purchased it so that the short-lived Baltimore Bayrunners of the International Basketball League could play there. It still features markings for the team — its logo was a fearsome-looking crab, of course — that played just one season beginning in 1999.
Those markings will be replaced with CAA signage. The arena may also need to borrow some equipment from Towson, said general manager Frank Remesch, and staff will need a refresher on hosting a basketball event that doesn't involve the playful Harlem Globetrotters.
"That's about all we'll need," Remesch said. "I like to bring this up because it makes us look good, but Tom Yeager said the arena looks better than it did two decades ago. It's certainly ready for an event like this."
Postseason college basketball hasn't been played in the 50-year-old arena since it hosted the first and second rounds of the NCAA men's tournament in 1995. Maryland also stopped playing occasional games there when it moved into Comcast Center in 2002.
Dennis Coates, an economics professor at UMBC who has researched the impact of sporting events on cities, said it is too early to measure how the event will affect Baltimore. It's unclear how many fans will want to travel to the new location, and the city could end up paying more to put on the event than it receives in tax revenue, he said.