The tickets at Iona College’s Hynes Center were $10 and $5. The capacity inside Hynes was 2,611. A teenaged fan slapped hands with players as they ran out of the locker room for the second half. And the postgame press conferences had to be held in a lecture hall to handle the overflow crowd — of students from an Iona sports journalism class.
No, the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT) is not the NCAA Tournament. But with Division I growing and bids to NCAA and National Invitational Tournament tougher to get than ever before — especially for “mid-major” schools that are not a part of the BCS establishment — the CIT is turning into a viable alternative for fans and teams alike.
“This is how I phrase it to [his players],” Iona coach Tim Cluess told TicketNews after Iona beat the University at Buffalo, 78-63, in a CIT quarterfinal game in front of 1,638 fans Tuesday, March 22. “I said ‘If I asked you about the NIT, would you guys know that the NIT was once the biggest tournament?’ And they wouldn’t. I said ‘Now the CIT is new, and we all know it’s new, but when you guys are my age, every kid growing up is going to know what the CIT is and you can sit there and say we played in the CIT, we won some games, we won a championship. Right now it doesn’t seem like much, but someday it’s going to mean a lot to you.'”
The presence of the CIT, which was founded in 2009 as a 16-team tournament exclusively for mid-majors before expanding to 24 this year, as well as the 16-team College Basketball Invitational (CBI – which was founded in 2008 and is open to all teams, though mid-majors make up the bulk of the field) proved especially valuable this year, when 13 NIT berths were taken up by “automatic bid” winners who finished first in their conference during the regular season but lost in the league tournament.
Of the 40 teams to play in the CIT and the CBI, 15 finished the regular season with at least 20 wins — the old benchmark for postseason play — while another eight had 19 wins. In 1995-96, only two 20-win teams missed out on the NCAA or NIT. But there were just 305 schools playing Division I basketball then, as opposed to 345 this year.
“There are a lot of teams that could have made the NIT,” said Jason Belzer, who, as the president of Global Athlete Management Enterprises, created the CIT in tandem with CollegeInsider.com and handles venue management for the tournament. “There are good, deserving teams out there that [wouldn’t] get an opportunity — a team like Iona, 22, 23 wins, gets to sit home while you have sub-.500 teams making the NCAA Tournament.”
Marketing the tournament to fans who are conditioned to believe in the NCAA or bust is a challenge, but the first 22 CIT games this year drew more than 50,000 fans combined. Belzer said the tournament drew about 40,000 fans the first two years. The University of Hawaii hosted the two biggest crowds: 4,431 for the Rainbows’ first-round game against Portland and 6,491 for the Rainbows’ second-round game against the University of San Francisco.
“We work hand-in-hand with these schools to promote the tournament in any way,” Belzer said. “Most schools, the fan base is hungry for extra games. There’s no question that people are coming out.”
The price tag certainly helps: Most host schools offered tickets at $5 and $10. The face value of a ticket to one of the NCAA Tournament regional doubleheaders last week was $186, while tickets to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden Tuesday, March 29 range from $10 for upper level tickets to $45 and $60 closer to the court.
While Iona averaged 2,121 fans in 13 home games during the regular season, athletic director Patrick Lyons was pleased with the turnout Tuesday, even though the school took a financial loss on the game (the CIT charges $31,500 to host a game and covers the visiting team’s travel expenses).
“At our level, for a MAAC [Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference] school, you’re not going to make a profit on this tournament, and you don’t really look at like it’s [about] making a profit,” Lyons said. “For me, as the athletic director, I look at it as is our team going to want to continue to play? Which they did, obviously.”
And it turns out the Gaels will get one more home game. Iona went on the road Saturday, March 26 and edged East Tennessee State, 83-80, to advance to the championship game, where it will host Santa Clara Wednesday, March 30.
Such an opportunity is a unique and welcome one for Iona, which, without the CIT, would have put the basketball away three weeks ago even though it won 22 games, finished second in the MAAC during the regular season, lost in the league title game and had the third-highest RPI of any team not invited to the NCAA or NIT.
“With all these teams getting automatic bids who lose, I’m like ‘You know what? Why should they be able to lose and be able to continue to play when we had a helluva season?'” Cluess said. “Why should our season end? So if the tournaments are out there for teams like us, we should play in them.”