Barely a week ahead of the Colonial Athletic Association's second men's basketball championship at Royal Farms Arena, commissioner Tom Yeager stressed that this year's event will tell both the league and the city a lot about the viability of a contract extension beyond 2016.
Yeager said Thursday that the tournament, which began a three-year contract in Baltimore in 2014, has plenty to build on from last year, and talks will "heat up significantly once … we have two years of performance to look at."
"We're looking at it as a very important year, that we want to demonstrate to Baltimore that this is an event that's worthy of their time and effort, and vice versa," Yeager said. "We want to make it work, but it also has to work for Baltimore, the hotels and restaurants, to help to support the city's efforts."
"Obviously, we'd love to extend here in Baltimore, and hopefully [this year's tournament] a great success, as we anticipate it to be."
Discussions between Visit Baltimore, the city's marketing organization, and the league about a new deal began in the fall, Yeager said.
Ticket sales for this year's tournament have been on the same pace as last year's, which brought a four-day total of 19,065 fans to the arena, Yeager said. Heading into the final weekend of league play, several tournament seeds are up for grabs, making it difficult for fans to know when their school will play.
"We've had a little better pickup on the business side, corporate," Yeager said. "We've had a little better pickup from our schools as far as buying the ticket blocks. We've had a better pickup on hotels, which is good. But again, there are a lot of people trying to figure out if they have to be here Friday or Saturday, and they're waiting on making some of those hotel reservations and things. It all comes together really quickly."
The closest team to the tournament, Towson, is already locked into a game. The Tigers (12-18, 5-11 CAA) will be either the No. 8 or No. 9 seed and play at 6 p.m. next Friday. If they win, Towson would play the tournament's top seed March 7 at noon. Another nearby school, defending champion Delaware, has fallen from 2014's lofty heights.
Yeager doesn't believe the different fortunes for those schools will affect attendance.
"One of the things that's made Baltimore really attractive is that we have a very big alumni presence here in the city," he said. "William & Mary (18-10, 12-5) turned out a good crowd last year, and they may be the No. 1 seed coming in."
He noted that James Madison also had a good crowd in 2014, while co-conference leader UNC-Wilmington (17-11, 12-5) was a frequent attendance-leader during the tournament's time in Richmond.
"I think we've got to do a better job collectively with the ten schools of getting people to follow their teams," Yeager said. "We've worked very hard this year to reach out to groups and stuff in Baltimore with Youth Night," which features free Friday tickets for children under age 12. "That's the thing. We're trying to get the identity, the idea that this is a cool event. You don't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool fan of a particular school."