There is NCAA Tournament basketball being played tonight in perhaps an unlikely location: Dayton, Ohio. Sure, they're the play-in games, or the First Four, but that's still a meaningful of the bracket.
But why do we have play-in games to begin with? Let's blame New Mexico. Or praise them, if you're into this sort of thing.
Back in 1999, the behemoth that was the WAC split, with half the teams electing to start their own conference, the Mountain West Conference. That conference qualified for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, putting the the organizers in a pickle. If they add another automatic bid to the tournament, you'd have to remove an at-large squad, robbing a so-called bubble team from making the Big Dance (this is what the women's tournament did in a similar situation). After deciding that that wasn't an appealing option, the NCAA decided to just tack on an extra team to the whole thing. 64 teams was out; 65 teams was in.
So the two lowest ranked teams were set to square off a few days before the actual First Round, setting up an undercard for basketball degenerates, as well as fans of mid-major conferences. This game was played in Dayton, where all of the pre-64 team bracket action has been ever since, even when the tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, creating four play-in games instead of one.
So why Dayton? Nothing against the good people of Dayton, but it's not a major cosmopolitan area, and it's not like Dayton screams "vacation destination" in late March. One reason might be Dayton's advantageous geographic location. The Columbus/Dayton metro is within 500 miles of 60% of the US population. Dayton sits in the Eastern time zone (which is better for coast-to-coast TV), is a short drive from NCAA headquarters in Indy, and is a reasonable trip for fans across the Midwest and East Coast.
Dayton may also benefit from being just the right sized city: large enough to have the hotel, dining and stadium infrastructure to support a large event, but not so large that the games risk being drowned out by other events. Combine that with a local fan base that loves college basketball (Dayton was 26th in attendance last season, averaging over 12,400 fans a game, more than Michigan, Purdue or Georgetown), and you have a recipe for success. Tickets for the 2013 games sold out six months in advance.
Of course, we don't just have one play-in game anymore. There are three other games, including two with potential power conference squads, and the NCAA needs to weigh potential travel concerns, TV rights, and other economic considerations against their arrangement with Dayton. One person who has previously been public in their support of the city is former chair of the basketball committee and current Ohio State AD Gene Smith. Here is what he had to say when the NCAA kicked tires on other possible location options when the play-in game became the First Four:
"We explored different options, including playing the first-round games at multiple sites as well as the possibility of playing all games on one day, but we came to the conclusion that Dayton is the best location to host all four games for the 2011 tournament," he said. "Moving forward, we will conduct a thorough evaluation, as we do with all rounds of the championship, with the student-athlete experience being our top priority."
However, just because Dayton has always been the host doesn't mean that they're a lock to continue hosting the event.
The current agreement guarantees the First Four through the 2015 season, but after that, it is technically up for grabs. Dayton floated a proposal that would have locked the event in the city in 2016 and beyond, but the NCAA declined, saying they're going to open up the process to outside bidders, though they fully expect Dayton to be amongst those.
Recently, a rep from the NCAA said that "Dayton has been an amazing host", and "is in pole position" to continue hosting the event.
If you had to hazard a guess, you'd be well served to wager that the NCAA will look hard at the idea of potentially splitting up the First Four, to help potentially mitigate travel concerns for participating teams, as well as explore if that arrangement is more profitable. Nashville could potentially be an option, as the city has held conference tournaments before, and has a program with recent basketball attendance success in Vanderbilt. The NCAA could also kick the tires on other midwestern cities (Kansas City, St. Louis to name a few), or even move the event down Route 70 to Columbus.
If the NCAA wanted to throw geography out the window, Atlanta and Las Vegas (gambling concerns be damned) could also be competitors, given their depth of experience in hosting events, their airports, and relatively affordable airfare and hotel options.
Still, unless another city makes an absolute slam dunk bid bid, or the event grows further beyond the four basketball games, it's not unreasonable to expect for the event to stay in Dayton. It provides a great influx of economic activity to a region that needs it, and the fans, university and city have been great hosts. It also gives locals a chance to see postseason basketball without breaking the bank.
Underdogs are a huge part of what makes March Madness great in the first place. What's a bigger underdog story these days than a place like Dayton?