The bands, the cheerleaders, the cartoon-like mascots — they all return this weekend as the city hosts postseason college basketball for the first time since the NCAA tournament staged sold-out games in 1995 and then promptly outgrew Baltimore Arena.
The four-day Colonial Athletic Association tournament, which begins Friday, provides a test of whether Baltimore's well-known history and affection for basketball will translate into support for a transitioning conference that had long been oriented toward more southern states.
The tournament — held in Richmond, Va., since 1990 and won by a Virginia-based school the past seven seasons — is committed to Baltimore for three years. Conference officials say they expect to decide after next year's event whether to extend the relationship beyond 2016.
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Baltimore Arena, which opened in 1962, has new backboards, a newly refinished floor and a corporate hospitality area in which several hundred sponsors and other VIPs can mingle on a stage overlooking the court. The arena — small and faded by NCAA tournament standards — has not hosted postseason basketball since Wake Forest's Tim Duncan, Alabama's Antonio McDyess and Oklahoma State's Bryant "Big Country" Reeves were marquee performers in NCAA first- and second-round games in 1995.
"It seems odd we keep producing all these athletes, but here we have not been showcasing basketball at the highest collegiate level," said Terry Hasseltine, director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing. "It's all coming to life. Hopefully, the CAA is not here just three years, but it's a long-term partnership."
The tournament is expected to have a $6.5 million annual economic impact on Baltimore, Hasseltine said. It was drawing more than 40,000 attendees in its last seasons in Richmond, and ticket sales have been running about 15 percent ahead of last year's pace, according to the CAA. The arena will seat about 11,000 for the tournament, about the same as Richmond Coliseum.
The high seedings of nearby Delaware and Towson — No. 1 and No. 2, respectively — are likely to boost attendance, particularly if they survive into Monday night's final. Towson opens Saturday night at 6 p.m. against seventh-seeded James Madison. Delaware begins Saturday's quarterfinal quadruple-header at noon against the winner of Friday's play-in game between No. 8 Hofstra and No. 9 UNC Wilmington.
The champion receives an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
"So much of the attendance factor relies on the more local teams continuing to advance through," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. "If our top two teams — who are pretty close to the area — are playing for the championship on Monday night, we're going to do better."
Conference officials describe Baltimore Arena as "intimate," but it might also be called spare. Players from the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks dressed in cramped rooms with bare walls when they played a sold-out preseason game there in October. Hasseltine called that game "a dry run" for the tournament.
Getting the nine teams and their fans adjusted to playing in Baltimore — and vice-versa — won't happen immediately, CAA officials said. The teams are scattered from Boston-based Northeastern to the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
College of Charleston is in its first season in the CAA, and Elon enters next season.
"It is an adjustment for our fans [traveling to Baltimore]. It's not a drive anymore," said Charleston coach Doug Wojcik, a former Navy player and assistant whose Cougars was accustomed to playing in the Southern Conference tournament in Asheville, N.C.
"It took us 18 years before we sold out Richmond Coliseum for the first time [in 2007]," said Robert Goodman, a senior associate CAA commissioner.
In the week before this year's tournament, Goodman said, the conference was still looking for a title sponsor. The regular sponsors include Under Armour, the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Maryland Lottery.
In scouting Baltimore as a potential tournament site, Yeager said he found "there has not been a terrific basketball presence in Baltimore over the years, but there are a lot of people we talked to with a hunger for basketball. We have a ton of kids that are metro Baltimore players."
Baltimore hasn't had an NBA team since the Bullets moved to the Washington area in 1973, but the city has consistently produced top high school talent.
Flint, whose Dragons are seeded fourth, said he believes Baltimore will be a better venue for the CAA tournament than Richmond because it is centrally located among the schools.
"It was tough playing ODU and VCU in that [Richmond] arena," Flint said. "They put a lot of people in there. It was almost like a home-court advantage. I think this gives everybody a better chance, a better opportunity to see if they can win or not."
Towson coach Pat Skerry knows his team will have an advantage this year playing close to home. But he said it won't approximate the benefit that VCU — which won four of its last 10 CAA tournaments before leaving for the Atlantic 10 — derived from playing in Richmond.
"This is our first time playing down there [at Baltimore Arena], too," Skerry said. "I think our fan base is growing daily, which is exciting. But we're certainly not at the point where it was [with] the Richmond Coliseum for VCU. We'd like to get as many Towson people as humanly possible there."