By Terry Vandrovec, Sioux Falls Argus Leader
It seemed like an unlikely pairing at first. The Summit League was an established NCAA Division I conference headquartered in suburban Chicago with members in several major markets, while Sioux Falls anchored the last state to participate in major-college athletics and lacked ideal facilities.
But things have worked out better for both than either could have expected since first teaming up on The Summit League Basketball Tournament in 2009. The city has helped the league shatter its previous records for attendance, corporate sponsorships and media coverage; the league has made a significant economic impact on the city and played a part in the creation of a new events center – the future home of the tournament.
Yes, the 31-year-old Summit League has found a second home in Sioux Falls, and this community of 156,592 has embraced The Summit League Tournament as its marquee sporting event. To that end, the two entities have agreed to keep the partnership going through at least 2017 with designs on making a good thing even better rather than merely maintaining.
“The city wanted us – the Mayor says that every year,” Summit League commissioner Tom Douple said.
“There’s a lot to be said for a place that wants you. We’ve created what we think is a pretty good niche for us in Sioux Falls.”
Indeed, Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether has become a fixture at the four-day, 16-team tournament – same with South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Sen. John Thune. The presence of those dignitaries is indicative of the level of support in the city – you can’t miss the signs out front of local businesses – and across the state. And why not? The event has an estimated economic impact of $1 million annually, according to the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Ticket sales are brisk, as well. The four tournaments held in Sioux Falls have been the four most highly attended tournaments in Summit League history in terms of combined men’s and women’s crowds. Last year, the event drew 40,290 fans, threatening in several sessions to fill up the 6,500-seat Sioux Falls Arena even though all 14 games aired on national cable television for the first time.
There will be plenty of room for more beginning in 2015 when the tournament moves into the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center. Currently under construction just west of the Arena, the venue will seat 12,000 people and cost $115 million. The project was approved in Nov. 2011 by a public vote, ending years of debate and failed attempts.
Huether believes the success of The Summit League Tournament and the prospect of retaining it long term played a part in the passage.
“I think what The Summit League did for Sioux Falls was again help us realize the importance of big events on our economy as well as talking about that national exposure things like that provide,” he said.
“I think it helped us realize that if we could do it at that level with the Sioux Falls Arena, only imagine what we could do with a new events center.”
Initially, there were concerns about the suitability of the Arena, a catchall facility that opened in 1961. But the Sioux Falls Sports Authority – barely a year old at the time – pitched some internal upgrades to the Arena as part of its bid to host The Summit League Tournament, things like bathroom renovations and creating a media room out of old storage space. That can-do spirit impressed Douple, and the city was given a two-year bid, the standard length at that time.
“We had the two major sponsors from the beginning so that was huge,” recalled Mike Sullivan, the recently retired executive director of the Sioux Falls Sports Authority. “We had to convince them of what the tournament could be and what it would mean to Sioux Falls if it did become successful.”
The wait was short. Sioux Falls set the combined tournament record for attendance in its first turn as host in 2009 at 34,681.
The excitement hasn’t leveled off, either, as evidenced by the 2012 numbers. The Summit League ranked sixth in Division I in terms of average tournament attendance for the women’s tournament games, ahead of the Pac-12 among others. The men’s tournament placed 12th in the country for average attendance and fourth out of the traditional mid-majors. Douple said it’s gotten to the point that other conference commissioners pick his brain about the event, hoping to create similar success within their leagues.
Past triumphs and future prospects helped entice The Summit League to announce in October that it would start a new five-year contract with Sioux Falls in 2013. There’s also an option for five years beyond that, extending as far as 2022.
This year, Sioux Falls will break The Summit League mark as the longest uninterrupted run as league tournament host, providing a modicum of stability at a time when league affiliations are influx at the D-I level.
“When I came here six years ago to visit the Arena, the town, the hotels and everything else, there was a can-do attitude,” said Douple, who has been the commissioner since 2005. “Now, we have a four-year history of that – we’ve seen it every single year. We just felt it was the place to be.”
Likewise, the Arena has become the place to be in early March. Sioux Falls is home to five high schools, two four-year colleges and (at least) four minor-league franchises yet The Summit League Tournament has become arguably the most circled event on the sports calendar.
“We have some big events, but it is The Summit League tourney that I think brings us back to our roots,” Huether said. “The big dog when I was growing up was the Class B (high school) basketball tournament. Now, the big dog is The Summit League Basketball Tournament. That’s what everybody waits for.”
So much so that all-session tickets go up for sale one year in advance, a practice that will continue this year. If that process plays out the way it has in the past, there will be long lines at the box office even as games are going on inside the Arena.
There are no signs that the buzz is going to die down. To the contrary, there’s reason to believe the event will continue to grow.
The University of South Dakota, located 50 miles south of Sioux Falls, is eligible to participate beginning this year. In 2014, the University of Denver comes into the league, leaving the Western Athletic Conference. The event is set to move into the new events center in 2015 followed one year later by the first year of tournament eligibility for Omaha. That will bring to five the number of schools within driving distance of the tournament: North Dakota State, South Dakota State, South Dakota, Omaha and Kansas City.
There are also plans to debut a new playing floor this year – purchased just for the tournament – and create a fan fest in the spacious new building. Still, the event is about basketball at its core. The Summit League has provided quality competition and the city has responded to it.
“There’s just an energy – it’s tournament time,” Douple said. “If there’s a loose ball, there’s people diving on the floor. It’s just fun to watch. I think the folks that have come to the tournament have really enjoyed the level of play, and I think that really has added to our success. We’re bringing a good product in.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This feature was originally published in the 2013 Summit League Basketball Championships program (March 9-12).
Terry Vandrovec covers The Summit League regularly for the Sioux
Falls Argus Leader. His work can be found on the Argus Leader
website (argusleader.com), his blog (terryvandrovec.tumblr.com) and
on Twitter @TerryVandrovec.