The Southern Conference basketball tournament will conclude tonight with a men's championship that will have considerably fewer fans compared to the first two title games at McKenzie Arena.
UTC's absence after getting bounced by Furman in Saturday's quarterfinals is the biggest reason why an abundance of empty seats are expected, but attracting a quality title crowd could have been a challenge even if the Mocs had made the final. Tonight's tip on ESPN2 will be shortly after 9 o'clock.
"We have a few concerns about the late start, but in some ways I think people will come to the game anyway because it's a chance to go to the NCAAs," SoCon commissioner John Iamarino said. "If we had our choice in a perfect world, we probably would not want to be at 9 o'clock, but ESPN is very up front with us, and we may not have as many options as other conferences."
When the Southern Conference moved its championship from Saturday to Monday following the 2007 tournament in Charleston, S.C., the title game was placed in a rotation by the cable network. It was to alternate annually between a 9 and 7 p.m. tip, which it did from 2008-10.
After last year's tournament in Charlotte, however, ESPN requested that the game start at 9 for a second straight year. So the '09 final in McKenzie, when UTC defeated the College of Charleston, has been the only one to start at 7 under this current arrangement.
"Sometimes you have to do what the networks want," Iamarino said. "We haven't heard any really strong sentiment from our membership and from the local community along the lines of 'We're not coming out for a 9 o'clock game.' You look at the ACC and the SEC throughout the season, and they're having to play a lot of 9 o'clock games."
The primary reason for moving the men's and women's championship games to Monday was to provide more tournament games on the weekend and allow fans more travel opportunities.
When Chattanooga housed the SoCon tournament the first time in 2005, it had an overall attendance of 24,546 and a Saturday night title-game audience of 7,243. The '09 tournament featured more weekend games and had a total attendance of 24,639, but the Monday night finale drew only 5,042.
"It's hard, but it's championship week, isn't it?" Wofford coach Mike Young said. "They can play this thing at midnight. We're going to be there, and we're going to be excited."
Despite the absence of the Mocs and Lady Mocs in today's title tilts, Greater Chattanooga Sports & Events Committee president Scott Smith hopes to break even or come close. The committee had $50,000 knocked off its tournament guarantee after agreeing to move last year's event in exchange for hosting it now.
"Without the financial break, it would have been pretty disastrous," Smith said, "but we have it, and it counts."