When the Ford Center debuted in 2011, the goal was to outfit Evansville with a top-tier sports venue to one day attract major sporting events and entertainment acts to Evansville.
The idea was that when those events come, more people would visit Downtown Evansville and surrounding communities.
Last week’s Division II men’s basketball Elite Eight was one of the biggest sporting events to use the Ford Center as a host facility, and by all accounts, it delivered on its promise.
A crowd of 4,742 — the largest since 2009 to be held at a local site — attended Saturday’s national championship game between Central Missouri and West Liberty, leaving Downtown businesses and bars bustling with people.
An estimated economic impact of $250,000 took a spike up when both teams brought four buses of fans for Saturday’s game.
“There are a couple of ways to evaluate the success for Evansville,” Mayor Lloyd Winnecke said. “One, we’re looking at how many people were in the stands and the energy that was in the Ford Center. The energy was dynamic.
“Secondly, I think you have to look at what it was to the city of Evansville on national television — two-and-half, three million people watching the national championship game live on CBS. That’s publicity and promotion for your community and region that you can’t buy.”
In fact, Evansville didn’t have to spend any money bringing the event to the city. The Evansville Sports Corp., a nonprofit that uses sporting events to improve economic development in Southwestern Indiana, bid on and organized the event.
There was hope that a crowd like Saturday’s would manifest itself, but that’s dependent on several variables, the most notable being the proximity of the teams competing.
Both teams brought large swaths of fans and students, but Winnecke and Jason Sands, Executive Director of the Evansville Sports Corp., were impressed by the number of nonpartisan fans who showed up.
“I’m proud for this city,” Sands said. “It takes a whole community pulling in the same direction to make something this a success. From USI, to the Ford Center, to the mayor’s office, this city shined on national television. It was a collective effort from the city as a whole.”
The other side of it is what this event means for local businesses downtown and around the city.
When the fan buses arrived, both Backstage Bar & Grill and Main Gate Sports Bar and Restaurant immediately filled with fans.
“I think Evansville came out and supported it,” said Shane Carey, general manager for Backstage Bar & Grill. “Just watching on TV, it didn’t look like there were many empty seats. To get things like this in Evansville, we need all of you to be downtown.”
The crowds in the earlier rounds weren’t eye-popping by any means — totaling 2,066 for the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds that were played Wednesday and Thursday. Those are areas that Sands said he hopes to improve upon for when the tournament returns next year.
The Elite Eight heads to Frisco, Texas in 2016, Sioux Falls, S.D., in 2017 and 2018. The 2013 Elite Eight was held in Louisville with the championship game being played in Atlanta in conjunction with the Division I Final Four. A crowd of 7,763 attended that game.
The NCAA said it would advocate doing the same in the future if the opportunity presented itself, leaving a city like Evansville to host just the quarterfinals and semifinals.
For now, the NCAA came away from last week’s event feeling very good about how the event went in Evansville.
“A place like Evansville — a venue like this — we were talking during the game that this was as good a championship game as it was in Atlanta last year,” said Eric Schoh, chair of the Division II men’s basketball committee. “There were a few more people at the game in Atlanta last year because of the Final Four and all the people that were around, but certainly there was an outstanding atmosphere here, a championship environment and a great venue here. This is my fourth year on the national committee and this is the best championship we’ve had.”
Central Missouri coach Kim Anderson expressed a similar sentiment.
“We had a tremendous time here,” he said. “The opportunity to get my picture with their mayor. I told him we had a great time. The arena — this place is unbelievable. This is big time. We had great hosts. I can’t say enough good things about this town as a host city. It was great.”
What that means for Evansville is that Sands can use the success of this week’s tournament to sell the city and region as a good spot to host other major events.
“We’ve got the infrastructure here,” he said. “My job is to go out and tell every event organizer and governing body that will listen that we can host their event and make it a success.”
This story was originally published in the Evansville Courier & Press