Chattanooga in picture again for SEC women's tournament

Chattanooga in picture again for SEC women's tournament

April 23rd, 2014 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Tennessee center Isabelle Harrison, left, talks with Tennessee coach Holly Warlick during the celebration of their win over Kentucky in the finals of the Women's Southeastern Conference tournament.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Absence apparently has made the heart grow fonder when it comes to Southeastern Conference women's basketball and Chattanooga.

SEC assistant commissioner Leslie Claybrook, who oversees the women's basketball tournament, has held discussions with Chattanooga Sports Committee president Tim Morgan and UTC athletic director David Blackburn about the tournament's return to McKenzie Arena. Chattanooga hosted seven of the eight SEC tournaments from 1993 to 2000, providing a total economic impact of $10.91 million according to Sports Committee figures.

The earliest McKenzie could be available again for the SEC women would be 2017. The installation of several video boards would be the big hurdle between now and then.

"Many of our coaches and administrators who work specifically in women's basketball and played in Chattanooga remember the atmosphere that was in the arena and also the buzz that was around the city," Claybrook said. "They are interested in perhaps revisiting Chattanooga to see if that can be re-created."

In 1992 the sixth SEC women's tournament held in Albany, Ga., had a total attendance of 12,318. The 1999 tournament at McKenzie had a total attendance of 43,221, highlighted by a sold-out semifinal session at the 11,218-seat facility, and 41,185 attended in 2000.

Nashville has hosted the event five times since and in 2008 set the existing record attendance total of 51,036. Nashville, however, will be hosting nine of the next 11 SEC men's tournaments, with the women scheduled there in 2018 and 2022.

The SEC women will return to North Little Rock, Ark., for a fourth time in 2015, but no other dates beside the two trips to Nashville have been set. Chattanooga has not formally submitted a bid but has indicated an interest to host.

"We would love to put ourselves back as the host destination for the SEC women's basketball tournament," Morgan said. "UTC, from the chancellor down, would like to see it at McKenzie Arena as well. I think we can re-create the welcoming environment and the hospitality that they experienced years ago.

"I think our community would be accepting of that, through conversations I've had with different individuals and different stakeholders across the community, as well as UTC, because they honestly believe it, too, but enhancements to the facility have to happen."

Arena shortcomings helped result in the SEC leaving after the 2000 tournament, but last year's $1.5 million renovation of courtside seating already makes McKenzie more attractive than before.

What must occur for the SEC to return is the installation of a four-sided center-hung video board that would replace what is there now. Blackburn said high-grade boards found at NBA and major-college venues are unrealistic from a financial standpoint but noted that attractive lesser-quality boards can be purchased for $750,000.

"You're getting a Volkswagen or a Honda and not a Cadillac or a Mercedes, but it would be like going from a bicycle to a Honda," Blackburn said. "We would also do three video panels on each side of the court that would run the length of the court, and we could probably do that for about $350,000. We're not wired and capable of supporting the speed and production of those interchanging videos and ads, and there is a lot of work we would have to do to the guts of the place, which would be another $500,000 or $600,000.

"So for $1.5 to $1.7 million, you could have the infrastructure and the boards and the technical support to push content through those boards."

The most attractive scenario for Blackburn and Morgan would be Chattanooga successfully hosting the 2017 tournament and then landing two or three of the 2019-21 events. That, according to Blackburn, would open the potential for greater financial support from the city and private sector.

"It may never happen, but it's worth us looking at it," Blackburn said. "We benefit from the exposure, as does the city. The SEC benefits from having a convenient, historical place that they've gone to before. Although the arena is older and may not be as fresh as they would like, I think our city kind of overrides all that."

Which seems to be a sentiment the SEC is sharing more than ever 14 years after its departure.

"There are some great women's basketball supporters in Chattanooga," Claybrook said. "They've done a great job supporting UTC with Wes Moore and now with Jim Foster. There are a lot of good women's basketball fans there, and that's obviously of interest to us and what we've got going on."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.