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FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2018, file photo, Duke's RJ Barrett (5) dunks against Hartford during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Durham, N.C. Barrett was named to the AP All-ACC team, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown, File)
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David Cook

It was last weekend; the opening rounds of the most intoxicating three weeks in American sports — the NCAA men's March Madness tournament — had begun.

My son and I were watching the Iowa-Cincinnati game. (He picked Iowa; I didn't.) The game was being played in Columbus, Ohio.

On the other channel, opening games were in Hartford, Connecticut.

Yes Hartford.

That's when my son turned to me and asked:

"Why can't Chattanooga host an opening round?"

Well why can't we?

Why can't Chattanooga host an opening round of the March Madness tournament?

Des Moines, Iowa, just did.

And San Jose, California.

Columbus and Hartford, too.

All great cities, indeed.

But what do they have that Chattanooga doesn't?

Yes, I know.

They have more arena seats than we do.

A lot more.

Those arenas in Des Moines, Columbus, Hartford and San Jose all seat 16,000 or more.

We can't boast that. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's McKenzie Arena seats around 12,000.

But don't believe the Big Seat Myth.

To host an opening round, the NCAA doesn't always require the biggest arena.

That means it's entirely possible Chattanooga could become a host city.

"Yes, they take the venue into serious consideration," said Tim Morgan. "But there is more to the story."

Morgan would know.

Since 2012, he's been the head of the Greater Chattanooga Sports and Events Committee; before that, he worked with Visit Charlotte and the Carolina Panthers. He knows a thing or two about hosting large-scale sporting events.

"I'm a firm believer it's not necessarily about seating capacity," he said.

More than arena seats, the NCAA wants cities to offer unique experiences for spectators and athletes.

They want the tangibles and intangibles.

Who does that better than Chattanooga?

"The NCAA takes into consideration other factors that may differentiate us from a 19,000-seat arena," Morgan said.

We have a downtown unlike any other.

The New York Times named us one of the top places to go in the world. Outside Magazine named us — twice — the Best Town Ever.

We have some 10,000 hotel rooms. (Seems like 20,000, doesn't it?)

If our city can host the president, or Ironman, or Head of the Hooch, or the Division I-AA football championships, or annually drawn in some $1 billion in tourist revenue, then we can host an opening weekend of March Madness.

This is not our first rodeo. (And yes, we've hosted the Longhorn Championship Rodeo.)

Host cities have been chosen through the 2022 tournament. Look closely, and you'll notice a trend:

Spokane, Washington.

Providence, Rhode Island.

San Diego, California.

Boise, Idaho.

Each will host an opening round in the next few years.

Each has a smaller arena, holding some 12,000 or so.

Just like McKenzie Arena.

In 2023, we could become an opening round host city.

Here's the way it works: Morgan and the Sports Committee partner with regional universities when placing bids to host NCAA events. (For example: the Sports Committee, Lee University and the University of North Georgia recently submitted a bid to host the Division II softball national championships.)

Hypothetically, the Sports Committee would huddle up with UTC, especially Mark Wharton, the athletic director and vice chancellor. Is this March Madness bid a good idea? Is it economically smart? Would Chattanooga want this?

Earlier this week, Morgan spoke to Wharton about the idea.

"I called Mark," said Morgan. "He's like: 'Yes. We would be interested. We should be evaluating this.'"

The men's tournament isn't the only option.

Chattanooga could bid to host a regional round of women's March Madness.

Or bring back the women's SEC basketball tournament, which we once hosted.

"I know there is a lot of passion within this community to support a women's SEC tournament," Morgan said. "I know for a fact the NCAA knows Chattanooga would like the women's SEC tournament back."

Bidding for the next round of host cities should open soon.

I love the idea: March Madness in the Scenic City.

Chattanooga, are you behind this?

"We weren't ready for the last bidding process," said Morgan. "But maybe, just maybe, we could be for the next bidding process."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329.

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