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The Big Dance Comes to Buffalo

Basketball revelers from across the nation packing downtown

For the fifth time since First Niagara Center opened its doors at the foot of Main Street, Buffalo becomes one of the epicenters of the basketball world, as our city is one of the eight host cities for the second and third round “subregionals” of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, more commonly known as “March Madness.”

Got your brackets ready? Because the eight teams competing here—Ohio State, Dayton, Syracuse, Western Michigan, Villanova, Milwaukee, Connecticut, and St. Joseph’s—are among the 64 left standing of the original field of 68. The “survive and advance” playoff drama will unfold in eight different locations including Buffalo this weekend, culminating in the championship game in Arlington, Texas, on April 7.

Buffalo has been a good host city. Check that—a terrific host city. The event has attracted sellout crowds on each of its runs dating back to 2000. Tickets for this year’s tournament, priced at $198-$252 for the entire series, were close to a sellout weeks ago, and that’s before it was made official that the Syracuse Orange would be one of the teams coming to Buffalo.

Rich Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and the co-host for the tourney, summarizes it like this: “Buffalo is a great location with easy access from many other great basketball markets. The facilities are top-notch and ever improving, there is an abundance of hotels, the locals love their sports and support the event, and there is a proven track record in Buffalo that makes the city a good fit for something like this.”

When Buffalo first rolled out the red carpet for the NCAA back in 2000, few knew what to expect. Buffalo has a pretty rabid fan base when it comes to its local college basketball teams, but they compete in lesser conferences, playing in small venues. “We were driving blind,” said Ensor. “Some thought we might be staging this event before swaths of empty seats and only supporters of the participating schools in attendance. Boy, were we wrong.”

Working with co-hosts Canisius College, Niagara University, and the Buffalo Sabres, an organizing committee was formed, involving hotels, restaurants. and other entertainment venues, staging an interactive fan event downtown, and in general creating a buzz on the streets of the city. “It exceeded everyone’s expectations,” said Ensor. “We knew then that Buffalo’s stock had risen with the NCAA, and for their support Buffalo has been rewarded for the fifth time. as well as a men’s hockey Frozen Four [held here in 2003].”

The logistics of putting this tournament on are daunting. First Niagara Center is transformed to a venue capable of housing eight separate teams. The ground floor becomes a nerve center for a crush of local and national media and officials from the various schools. Buffalo Sabres vice president of public relations Mike Gilbert explains, “Our role is to work within the NCAA guidelines to prepare the building and make sure everyone is accommodated. We keep getting feedback how great our facilities are, and when you think about it, look at what’s happened to the neighborhood since 2000. Even just since 2010 we have new restaurants, new places for our visitors to experience. With HarborCenter coming online by 2015, that will open up all sorts of new possibilities to enhance the fan experience the next time we get the tournament.”

Next time?

“Absolutely,” says Ensor. “You see the NCAA going back to the same sites again and again, places that put on a bit of a wow factor. I believe that there is no reason why Buffalo wouldn’t be in the selection rotation every three or four years.”

Besides the local fans, there are thousands of supporters who descend on Buffalo for the weekend, and they are looking for good places to eat and drink, and fun things to partake in. “I’d call it a bonanza,” says Rob Free, director of food service for the Buffalo Bisons. “For the bars and restaurants, it is a financial shot in the arm for many establishments, and not just the ones right near the arena. Fans and visitors fan out throughout downtown and even beyond to patronize the businesses. Even on the off day between sessions, the places are packed as people watch the games from around the country.”

Over at Pettibones restaurant at Coca Cola Field, the offering will include a buffet menu of Buffalo taste treats including, of course, chicken wings and beef on weck. “Like most places, our job is to get hungry fans in between sessions, get them fed and then back to the arena. A buffet setup works best,” said Free.

The Bisons will also open the concourses at Coca Cola Field with some concession stands available, and Pettibones will be open for lunch service before the Saturday sessions. “No doubt that the hotels and restaurants will be buzzing all weekend,” said Free. “We’re happy to be a part of it here at the ballpark.”

On the court, Buffalo fans have been treated to many dramatic and magical moments, which regulars at these tournaments can rattle off: 2000—Tommy Prince and Pepperdine electrify the crowd with their flamboyant loose style of play and shocks Indiana; 2004—St. Joseph’s and Jameer Nelson bring a large and robust fan contingent along as they blow through Liberty (with Rev Jerry Falwell in attendance) and Texas Tech enroute to the Sweet 16; 2007—Virginia Commonwealth’s Eric Maynor singlehandedly goes the length of the court and lays in the last second bucket to stun Duke in the first round; 2010—the barrage of Syracuse fans paint the town, and the arena, in orange as the team marches to the Sweet 16.

“Two memories stand out during our time here,” said Ensor. “The first was Indiana’s shocking upset loss in 2000, which turned out to be the final game in Coach Bobby Knight’s career with the team. The second was Duke going down to VCU in the last second in 2007. Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] conducted himself with such poise and grace in that defeat. Most people remember the buzzer beaters, the big wins. For me, it’s how those associated with sports present themselves in the face of adversity. In both cases, these men were stunning. I’ll always carry that with me.”

So memo to the locals: If you see someone on the streets wearing an unfamiliar looking team jersey, carrying a map and a camera, perhaps, and looking a bit forlorn—stop and say hello, welcome them to Buffalo, give them directions to wherever they happen to be going, and be that great ambassador for our city. We only get a chance to go dancing once every few years. But what a big dance it is.

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