HARTFORD — One day after the city drew more than 200,000 for the UConn dual championship celebration, Hartford scored another college basketball triumph.
The American Athletic Conference announced Monday it will play its men's basketball championship tournament at the XL Center in March 2015.
The event could generate $3.5 million for the local economy.
"Our decision is a function of our stated desire to rotation the tournament within our conference footprint," AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said. "Hartford submitted an outstanding bid, and they have an excellent overall plan. We also recognize there is enormous excitement in Hartford. There will be tremendous interest in our tournament next year."
The AAC played its inaugural tournament in Memphis at the FedExForum, an 18,000-seat arena that is also home to the NBA Grizzlies. Ticket sales and all else were deemed satisfactory by league officials at the time, though when the tournament was over March 15, Aresco said it would be about a month before the conference, which had an option to return for 2015, made its final decision. He said offers from six venues were considered, some from conference cities such as Memphis, Hartford and Orlando, Fla., others from cities near conference schools.
The women's AAC tournament was played at Mohegan Sun this year, and the league is expected to pick up its option to play there again in 2015. An announcement on that is expected Thursday,meaning both tournaments would be played in Connecticut.
"I was never opposed to having both in the same market," Aresco said. "I was opposed to having both in the same venue. We take these bids as they come, evaluate them independently."
The AAC also is expected to announce this week an agreement for the men's tournament to be played in Orlando in 2016 and 2017, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
But coming to Hartford for 2015 is a chance to strike while the fandom is hot — at a time in which the excitement surrounding UConn basketball is at a peak, and while UConn, which would certainly pounce on an invitation to join one of the so-called power conferences, the Big Ten or the Atlantic Coast Conference, is still in the AAC.
For Hartford, this will be a marquee event following the completion of a $35 million upgrade of the XL Center, which will be completed in October, and an opportunity for the building to re-establish itself as a venue for major college basketball events.
The Connecticut Convention and Sports Bureau estimates the men's tournament could generate $3.5 million, well above the $2.1 million averaged by the Big East women's tournament when it was in Hartford for 10 years.
Historically, men's tournaments have generated more because the fan base is more likely to travel to attend games.
The demographic of those attending men's games also is different, with heavier interest from younger business professionals, according to Curt Jensen, the bureau's director of sports marketing.
And there is typically more attention from corporations, who use the games to entertain clients, Jensen said.
"Yes, it is in Connecticut and yes, it is in Hartford," Jensen said. "And we do love our Huskies, but we have to make it everyone's championship tournament as well."
With that in mind, Jensen said, the bureau intends to reach out to alumni associations in the schools in the conference to organize events in Hartford during the tournament.
"Today's announcement puts Hartford back in the basketball tournament business," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said. "While this is great news for next year, I am even more excited for what this means in the future. I believe we can and should be in consideration for more NCAA Tournament events, and I will continue to push to bring those games to our state. I want to thank the American Athletic Conference for making this decision. I also want to send a message to college basketball fans everywhere — come to Hartford next March. You won't be disappointed."
The XL Center hosted the Big East men's tournament before it went to Madison Square Garden permanently and was a host site to NCAA subregionals in the past. From 2004 to 2013 it was host of the Big East women's tournament, before the league broke up and the AAC signed on with Mohegan Sun this past season. Hartford Mayor Pedro E. Segarra, who worked with the state and the Capital Region Development Authority on the bid, was excited to have postseason basketball back in the city.
"We look forward to hosting all the fans and having them experience all the excitement the capital city has to offer," Segarra said.
UConn finished in a third-place tie in the AAC and had to play the home team, Memphis, in the quarterfinals March 13. The Huskies, bouncing back from a 33-point loss to Louisville in the regular season finale, defeated Memphis before its packed home court, and also beat Cincinnati in the semifinals before losing again to Louisville in the final. The performance in Memphis, though, readied the Huskies for the NCAA Tournament, where they won six in a row to win the fourth national men's title in school history.
"We are excited and proud that the American Athletic Conference has chosen the XL Center as the site for next season's men's championship tournament," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "It will give more of our great fans in Connecticut a chance to watch the intensity and competitiveness of postseason play. Last year's tournament in Memphis brought together some of the top teams in the country and I know next year in Hartford will do the same. We want to keep Connecticut in the college basketball spotlight."
Andy Bessette of the CDRA, a UConn grad, said the business community in Hartford and the surrounding area offered strong backing to the XL Center bid. The plan will include activities for fans in and around the XL Center, and throughout the surrounding area.
"We run a lot of events," Bessette said. "One thing that strikes me, the response in the business community is second to none when it came to supporting this bid. If we fill the seats, the rest is all good. … We plan on rolling out the red carpet."
The renovated XL Center will have new amenities for fans and participants, including a new concourse with a gathering area behind one of the end zones, a new scoreboard and new loge-level boxes.
The AAC is yet to decide dates and a format for the tournament. The league will expand from 10 to 11 teams this coming season, with Louisville and Rutgers departing, and Tulane, Tulsa and East Carolina joining. Games could be played Thursday through Sunday, ending on the day of the NCAA Tournament selection, or Wednesday through Saturday, as the tournament was run in Memphis. The tournament will bring the traveling parties and fans of 11 teams to Hartford, filling hotels, area restaurants and bars, and UConn fans from all corners of the state.
"We believe that our loyal UConn fans will once again fill the XL Center for our men's and women's basketball games in 2014-15," UConn AD Warde Manuel said, "and that will continue during the 2015 American men's tournament."
Staff writer Kenneth R. Gosselin contributed to this story.