Sunday, June 3, 2018

Rich Ensor on MAAC Tournament, Atlantic City, sports betting, 20-game schedule

MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor addresses impending move of conference tournament to Atlantic City in press conference Friday. (Photo by The Press of Atlantic City)

In a message to commissioner Rich Ensor shortly after the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference extended its contract with Albany's Times Union Center by two years to keep its men's and women's basketball championships in New York's capital, the presidents of the eleven member institutions signed off with their support, but told Ensor to find a neutral site for the next bidding cycle, which covers the 2020-22 tournaments.

The commissioner -- and the league -- did exactly that on Friday, declaring that the MAAC would move its postseason basketball tournaments to Atlantic City following next season's Albany farewell, holding a press conference at historic Boardwalk Hall to consummate the decision, choosing the 10,000-plus seat arena over Nassau Coliseum and the incumbent bid from Times Union Center.

"As we started narrowing down our choices between Nassau, Atlantic City and Albany, the presidents' message of trying to find a neutral site that could be a destination for our fans, and yet maintain our structure in terms of the format of the tournament and our revenue stream, was stressed," Ensor said after the formal announcement was made Friday morning. "It became apparent that, as you checked off those boxes, Atlantic City was hitting them all. It had a very attractive package, the financing and underwriting of expenses, it has a history of postseason events including Atlantic 10 tournaments, and the fact that it was very much a neutral site -- and also a destination site where we can get some very attractive options for hotels, dining, shopping and gaming -- all seem to indicate that the direction was to really to take a hard look at Atlantic City."

The league conducted a site visit at Boardwalk Hall in early February, reaffirming the positives listed above when considering a return to New Jersey -- who last hosted a MAAC Tournament when Trenton welcomed the league in 2003 -- and, as mentioned, the former home of the Atlantic 10 for six seasons between 2007 and 2012 before the league moved into newer digs at Barclays Center.

"By far, the energy, the marketing, the operational details -- it was apparent that they wanted the MAAC," said Ensor. "That was important to them, and they were willing to put behind it this package. We really made it work for us as a league, and when we went into the April meetings with the ADs and senior women's administrators -- they had all been on the site committee -- their recommendation was Atlantic City. And then when we had the presidents' meeting on Wednesday, we went through all the details, but we didn't spend an inordinate amount of time on it, because there was a full consensus that we wanted to be here in Atlantic City. The vote, in that case, was unanimous."

The move to Atlantic City marks the MAAC's return to a true neutral site for the first time since its three-year tryst with Springfield, from 2012 to 2014. While the MassMutual Center was an ambitious experiment, the move was largely panned due to lackluster attendance figures and early exits by schools with sizable traveling fan bases such as Siena and Marist, not to mention a lack of tourist attractions in the downtown area. When the concern of avoiding another pitfall came up, the commissioner was confident that such an issue would not present itself.

"I think it's an established destination site, and it's on the rebound in terms of the investment that's coming into the marketplace," Ensor pointed out. "The Hard Rock casino is opening this month, Revel (now the Ocean Resort Casino) is being rebranded and reopened. I think as a destination site, it works. It has multitudes of dining, hotel and entertainment options, which shows at the casinos, and also the gaming opportunities that are present. We're fairly confident that it's a much different venue and site than what we had in Springfield."

In addition to the ancillary benefits of Atlantic City, the Supreme Court's recent decision to legalize sports betting has made the MAAC's new home a topic of conversation on the gambling front as well, with nearby Monmouth Park poised to be among the first New Jersey venues to open a sportsbook in the immediate future. While Ensor admitted he did not expect the decision to be much of a concern, he did stress the importance of educating those in the MAAC about the impact it can wield.

"It wasn't so much a concern," he said. "We talked about it at the meeting, because we had our legal counsel present. I think there was some thought that we need to educate our teams, coaches and players better about some of the issues surrounding things like injury reports and so forth, that these are going to become much more important to a lot of people as they start gambling on games."

"There's an educational component to that, but on the other side -- on a strict interest in betting college basketball -- we thought that going to the last Saturday of the season, right before Selection Sunday, when all the interest is focused on college basketball nationwide, and now we're going to be in a city where there's going to be sports wagering -- not necessarily on the MAAC games -- that might lead to more attendance at the MAAC Tournament, just because there's fans in the area. It's a two-sided thing, but we do have to do a good job of educating our students and coaches about the dangers, too."

The MAAC also announced its intent to revert to a 20-game schedule, beginning with the 2019-20 season, after going back to its traditional 18-game slate for both this past season and the coming campaign, but Ensor was quick to point out that it was not a knee-jerk reaction to non-conference performance or postseason seeding concerns.

"At the end of the day, there are so many opinions on that," he said. "We said if the ADs want to revert back to this, we'll revert back to it. I don't know that the presidents think strongly one way or the other, whether it should be 18 or 20, but they were willing to defer to the ADs. We'll manage it at 20, and if in a few years they want to go back to 18, we'll manage that too."

With the journey to Atlantic City comes the concession of the MAAC's longtime Monday night championship game in the first week of March, six days before Selection Sunday. Boardwalk Hall has long been associated with the New Jersey state high school wrestling championships that weekend, which forced Ensor to move his own championships back five days, going head-to-head with power conferences such as the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conferences. However, the commissioner sees no negative effects of that move, maintaining a stance that the league's joining of an action-packed championship weekend across the sport will be more a boon than a bane to its bottom line.

"I don't think it's necessarily a negative for us," Ensor optimistically stated. "With our investment in ESPN -- we had 317 broadcasts this year and we're on schedule for, by 2022, to have 600 a year on their networks -- we know we'll have a platform for the games. Now, will it be ESPN or ESPN2? I don't know. We'll have to enter into negotiations with ESPN on that, but we know we can get the broadcasts to our fans that need to see it that way."

"We also think that, as people are focused on the automatic qualifiers, there's going to be a lot of talk about the MAAC and who's coming out of the MAAC, if there'll be an at-large out of the MAAC. With everybody focused on college basketball that weekend, there's some upside for us involved in this, too, and it differentiates us from a lot of our competition. We are up against the best teams in college basketball, and we're willing to be judged by that."

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