Lazerus: Valparaiso ready, willing and able
By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or firstname.lastname@example.org February 15, 2012 11:22PM
Jeffrey D. Nicholls/Post-Tribune Valparaiso's Howard Little shoots the ball before a packed ARC Tuesday evening against Purdue at Valparaiso University. ptspt
Mark LaBarbera discusses why VU doesn’t charter flights, as
Butler does, at blogs.post-trib.com/lazerus. Follow Mark Lazerus on Twitter at @MarkLazerus.
Updated: March 17, 2012 10:26AM
VALPARAISO — The Horizon League men’s basketball tournament has been held in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse (capacity: 10,000). In the NBA’s Market Square Arena (16,530). In big-time arenas such as Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum (17,556), the University of Dayton Arena (13,435), Evansville’s Roberts Municipal Stadium (12,732) and Milwaukee’s U.S. Cellular Arena (10,783).
This year? Barring a Crusaders catastrophe over the next nine days, the conference’s signature event will be at the little barn in Valparaiso — the ARC.
Capacity? Five thousand.
It’s not ideal, of course. But what the Horizon League loses in gate money, it hopes to make up for in enthusiasm.
“It’s not big, but it has great intimacy,” said Alfreeda Goff, the Horizon League’s senior associate commissioner and chief of staff, and the person in charge of putting on the league’s championship events. “If you get 5,000 people in here — I’ve been here when you guys had Purdue here, so I know the atmosphere is just awesome. So our goal is to sell it out, and whatever that sellout is, we’ll accept it. We don’t want an empty seat in the house.”
Valparaiso won’t benefit from those ticket sales, anyway. The league pays to put on the event, and the league reaps the revenues of the event. Valparaiso’s benefit comes on the court — the enormous competitive advantage of a double-bye to the league semifinals, and (assuming the Crusaders get one more win or Cleveland State suffers one more loss) the right to host the tournament’s second round, semifinals and finals (should they win their semifinal game).
That would put Valparaiso a mere two home victories from the NCAA Tournament — and that’s where there’s money to be made.
“That’s clearly what we want,” said VU director of athletics Mark LaBarbera. “We want the competitive advantage.”
But with great power comes great responsibility. And the university has been spending a great deal of time over the past couple of weeks working out the logistics of hosting the league tournament. Goff and her staff were on a site visit on Tuesday, and they’ve been in regular communication with Valparaiso’s athletic department and communications department over the past couple of weeks as it became clear VU was in the hunt for the top seed.
And while LaBarbera pointed out that the school has hosted 17 men’s basketball games already this season, and has accommodated ESPN and sellout crowds on numerous occasions, the tournament is a bit more involved.
Among the many accommodations the school will make is putting two rows of seating for media, league staff and coaches (scouting other games) on the chairback side of the ARC. ESPN and the Horizon League prefer the broadcasters to be across the court from the benches, so up to 50 fans will be displaced.
The school’s athletic ticket operations manager, Cindy Eaton, said there’s a plan in place to find other chairback seats for the fans who usually sit there. The fact that tournament tickets aren’t part of the season-ticket package, and that not all season-ticket holders will want tournament tickets, alleviates any concern.
The reason she knows this? VU was in a similar position last year, before losing its grasp on first place down the stretch.
“We were ready to go,” Eaton said. “We had all our pre-orders in, the tickets were printed and ready to distribute.”
Eaton had to shred all those tickets when Milwaukee earned the top seed. This year, she hopes to distribute them. She’s also hoping for a busy week of sales — second-round games cost $10 for general admission, since VU won’t be playing. The semifinal doubleheader will cost $30 for the chairbacks, $20 for the upper and lower bleachers, and $10 for any Horizon League students. The final costs the same.
But if things go well for the league, it’ll be an awfully tough week for Eaton. That’s because most of her workers are students, and VU will be on Spring Break throughout the tournament.
That’s a problem that will extend to every aspect of hosting the tournament. Students act as ushers, as crowd control, as ticket takers — even the concession stand is run by the baseball team. LaBarbera is reaching out to the community for adult support — the local Lions Club already helps out, and the school’s cafeteria workers will staff the concession stand.
The students’ absence will be felt the most in terms of attendance.
“Not all our students will go to Florida for spring break,” LaBarbera said. “We’re spending time talking about how we can encourage our students to stay here. We definitely need students — we need them at our games, because they bring the most energy into the building. And we’re not going to have our normal pool of students on campus to draw from.”
There are other minor concerns — practice space is at a premium, especially with a women’s game (which will be moved to noon) on the day of the semifinals. So some teams will be relegated to Hilltop Gym, a decision which will be made by the league, not the school, so as to remove any hint of gamesmanship.
To accommodate the teams, other sports’ locker rooms will be used. The training room will be pushed to its limits, and the hospitality and media rooms will be altered slightly.
After flirting with the top seed last year, VU knows what it’s getting into — and what it lost last year in terms of competitive advantage. So it’s more than happy to work overtime and bend over backwards to get it done.
“The best thing (Valparaiso has) going for it is an administration that’ll do whatever we need, and whatever they can do to do what we need,” said Wayne Burrow, assistant commissioner for championships and scheduling, who was on the site visit with Goff.
And Goff said that’s nothing out of the ordinary. So even if the ARC is a little small, even if fans of other schools roll their eyes at what they routinely refer to as a “high school gym,” the university — and the league — have no doubt Valparaiso can pull this off.
Heck, the hardest part will be beating either Loyola or Butler to actually make it happen.
The burden is a bonus.
“I’ve never come across anything that league staff and host institutions couldn’t work out,” Goff said. “Seriously, I can’t think of one time. I think our member institutions understand the importance of the event, and they want to do the best they can. And if they’re hosting, that means they’re the regular-season champion — so they’re already happy.”