Tuesday, June 7, 2016

State of the MAAC: A Q&A with commissioner Rich Ensor

Winners of both men's and women's MAAC basketball championships, Iona will return to their championship site for next three seasons after conference extended their agreement with Albany's Times Union Center. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)

On Friday, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference announced an extension to the current contract with the Times Union Center, adding two more years to the arena's agreement to host the MAAC basketball championships, ensuring that the league's automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament would be handed out in Albany through 2019.

However, what many assumed would be an endorsement of a three-year agreement such as the current one, which expired in 2017 before Friday's announcement, or the previous arrangement with Springfield's MassMutual Center, was met with some dissension, as there were administrators who felt it was not in the league's best interest to continually go to Albany, citing a desire to play the conference tournament closer to the New York metropolitan area.

The future of the MAAC men's and women's basketball championships was just one of the many topics I was able to speak to commissioner Rich Ensor about on Monday afternoon. Ensor, always professional and forward with the media, was gracious enough to answer the following questions, which I will transcribe below:

Jaden Daly: Was there a sense among the presidents, and you mentioned this at the Monmouth-Siena game, (in January) that three years was a little too much to some of the administrators?

Rich Ensor: No question, some of the presidents thought three years was too long an extension, through 2020. I would say it's more complicated than just a site. There's some sense within the presidents that they'd like to deep-dive strategic planning for basketball.

We just ended a five-year plan that saw us do a number of different things, including the ESPN3 rollout. While that's ongoing, they felt some of the elements with basketball needed review, so we certainly got tied up in that discussion, but you're right. There's no question that some of them thought three years was too long...not all of them, but some of them.

JD: The benefits to Albany are multifold both on and off the basketball court, with the economic benefits to both the league and the city as well. How much of a drawing card was that in deciding to go back there again for another two years?

 Well, they had the most attractive financial bid, there's no question, and they also put together the best overall presentation toward it in terms of not just the basketball, but the award show, the FanFest moving into the new convention center, and just how they could house a large majority of the teams in the downtown Albany area, within walking distance of the arena. Those elements all played in Albany's favor.

The issue that always comes up when we have these reviews is, is it too much of an advantage to Siena to host the tournament? Some schools have different opinions on that, and that comes into play whenever we're looking at these bids. That was part of the reason why, five years ago, we moved to Springfield for a period of time.

If we had had the right type of bid from some of the other sites, we'd likely look at them even closer this time, but there were too many elements that didn't quite match up, and ultimately, that's why the ADs recommended Albany and the presidents came around to thinking that a three-year period there, but only a two-year extension, would be the right number.

JD: Would it be fair to consider, maybe a year or two down the road, a scenario kind of like what the league had in the early 2000s, where you would go to Albany for one year and then another site the following year?

RE: I think we would look at rotating different buildings once we have our mindset on what the format should be, because one of the things we didn't learn from those previous site rotations was that you lose some continuity in terms of your fan base when you're continually moving around, so typically, a three-year period is the right number if you want to build somewhere for a ticket base and where to support the event. I don't think we'll go back to every other year, but we could very well go to something like three years in one place, three years in another. I think all those issues are on the table as we start this review process.

JD: You mentioned a possible format change. Is there any inkling as to what that might be, or is it still too early to tell?

RE: It's too early, but I would say all the normal elements that come into these discussions when we do strategic planning: Is it a men's and women's joint tournament? Is it all eleven schools, or do we take our top eight? Any combination that you can think of that goes along with that. We'll put different models together for them to look at.

I think it's important that we've had a lot of new issues and we have a lot of new presidents, we've got a fair number of new coaches. We need to have these conversations every once in a while, because we've got to understand why we're doing things a certain way. I think all things worked very well for us the last two years, I think the extension was the right direction to go. That's not to say we shouldn't go other places to spread the MAAC brand around.

There remains a strong sense among some of the MAAC presidents that if we can get into a metropolitan New York facility, it would help raise or elevate the entire brand, and I think we've known that for a long time. It's finding a building that is interested and also works for us financially. We had conversations with Nassau Coliseum, and they did put a bid together, and I think we'll have more conversations with them. Bridgeport can be a good building, and we'll have that conversation again. We talked with the Prudential Center in this go-round, and they just have some conflicts on dates; they have Seton Hall as one of their primary tenants, and the Devils, and it's hard to work some of their dates around the end of the season.

JD: There's been a lot of talk about the Coliseum and the idea that it would be better off with a potential 12th team, and there's been some speculation about Hofstra. Assuming that the conference stays at eleven, how would you refute the notion that it wouldn't work unless there was a dominant local presence in the area?

RE: Well, it depends on how you would define local. One of the things is, while not in their backyard, Manhattan, Fairfield and Iona are certainly within easy driving distance. I guess the biggest issue you would use to refute it is, where do our alumni reside? I think if you draw a circle around where our alumni are concentrated, there's a pretty good number of them within easy driving distance of Long Island, particularly Nassau County, and there's good train service and that kind of thing, too.

Some of the issues there are, are there enough full service hotels? What are the price points? Those are a lot of the things that go into the background of a bid. And the arena hasn't opened yet, the renovated arena, so we'll certainly want to get in there and look at it.

One of the ways you also develop a fan base for that kind of decision, if we were to pick Nassau Coliseum, is to have regular season games there, too. Some of the local schools like Iona and Manhattan, in particular, would they commit to doing some regular season games there to build a fan base? Those are all the kinds of things we'll discuss as we start the strategic planning process.

JD: You brought up continuity and the need to have a lot of it, and for the last couple of years, the coaching contingent has pretty much stood pat. Do you feel that this league has grown a little more now with the personnel in it, and how much more room do you see it having to grow over the coming years?

RE: We certainly want to get to a point where we have multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament. I think we still have some room to grow. We were all disappointed, I think the entire membership was, when Monmouth didn't get an at-large bid this go-round. I think most people thought they deserved an at-large, particularly compared to some of the teams that did get those bids, but I think one of the things in strategic planning we'll be looking at is, how do we make sure that teams that build a resume of non-conference wins are not hurt by their conference schedule? Frankly, the only things you could look at on Monmouth's schedule as being slightly detracting were the losses to Army and Canisius. That being said, I still think nothing about that decision makes sense, but that's the basketball committee's decision.

But yes, I still think we have room for growth. Particularly, that's our ultimate goal, and that's what the strategic planning process will take a look at, what we would have to invest further in terms of scheduling, facilities, personnel, in order to improve the league overall and also provide a better basis for the MAAC Tournament and finally, multiple bids in the NCAA Championship.

JD: On that note, is reverting to 18 conference games still on the table? John Dunne (Saint Peter's head coach) had said that was in the conversation at the league meetings last year.

RE: We're meeting starting on Wednesday in Lake George, and that is on the agenda. I think if you talked to John Dunne today, he'll tell you it's mixed, 50-50. I think that some of the folks that were supporting it four months ago have rethought their positions, but to the league, it's not an issue for the MAAC. Whatever number they want; 18, 16, 20, we can put out schedules for it.

I think within the coaches right now, there's a recognition that while 18 might make sense, who's not playing each other, you get into that whole discussion, how is that determined, and what are we doing with those two extra games? Can we get an opponent to play us at home? At least now, they're getting one of those two games at home. I think the question of what number it should be; 16, 18 or 20, is still very much on the table. We'll see if we get any consensus.

Unless there's strong consensus, I'm not sure we're going to move off of 20, because at least you know you're playing everybody twice there and you know not to worry if you're getting the stronger schedule or the weaker schedule.

JD: From a media standpoint, the past couple of years has seen the league do a lot more on ESPN3, but the one criticism is that not every game in the tournament has the potential to be streamed. Is that something you're looking at as well going into this season?

We talked as recently as last Thursday, we met with the Times Union Center staff. It's really a financial issue. It's not really on the arena other than there are certain waiver clauses that are initiated when you move into arenas, so we're working on some possible ways of doing that, but at a cost-effective level. I'm not sure we're ready to declare victory yet, but we're certainly making some progress. We'll see.

To recap, Ensor highlighted scheduling, the tournament, and officiating as the main topics on the agenda for this week's conference meetings, which start Wednesday. The commissioner revealed that Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's vice president of men's basketball championships, will be a guest at the meetings.

1 comment:

  1. He didn't answer your question on Hofstra.... ;-)