In advance of the 2017-18 season, the Big 4 basketball coaches joined The Buffalo News for a conference call on a variety of subjects. Here, Niagara coach Chris Casey, Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon and St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt share thoughts on scheduling:
Question: You are all opening up on separate days. You have Niagara going to Bonnies and UB and Canisius playing each other. One is on a Friday, the other is on a Saturday. In a perfect world, we would have all of you in the same group, how it used to be when it was the Little Three. Do you see any way we could build this in a way - - college basketball in Buffalo -- where it becomes a main attraction, something where it becomes big on the radar?
Casey: I think you have to make it a yearly event, to be in the arena and play each other. What happens is that it happens sporadically, and a lot of it is tied to the NCAA Tournament. When the MAAC has to host the NCAA Tournament, we generally get those Big Four games in there. But I think it needs to be a yearly event that people look for every year. Right now, they don't know when it's coming, you know? People look forward to it a little bit more if they know it's coming every year. If you put it around the same time every year, if we opened the season with it, I think it would add a little more pop to it. People would get excited about it.
Witherspoon: I was going to ask Jerry Sullivan to answer that question (laughs).
Q: Reggie, you know. You're old enough to remember when Canisius and Niagara was a big deal or Bonnies and Canisius or whatever the case may be. There have been times in the past few years, even the Koessler Center wasn't full when Bonaventure comes in. That would have been ludicrous 20 years ago.
Witherspoon: A couple things: You're right. You're right. I think we have to do more to make these games, from a marketing standpoint, about more than just basketball. I said this when the arena first opened, and I was downtown. I said, "There's a lot of talk about alums, getting the alums there. If we're not careful, our alums, and maybe for our fans, they'll have a greater affinity for the games that are on TV." It's a lot easier to sit home and watch those games on TV.
You have to try to make it about more than basketball, so you can get casual observers to the game. And what might those things be? They might be getting events that are already on our campuses to become part of a basketball game, so you have more than just a basketball game. And the other thing, I think, and I've had an interesting conversation quite a few years ago ... and this was before the Big East, that he kept his season tickets. When I asked him why, he talked about all of the teams that were coming in that conference. He was very familiar with the players. It helps to familiarize the local fan base. We can't change our teams to be an old Big East. It helps to familiarize the local fan fans with who is and isn’t unique.
What I found to be a challenge in Western New York is that they're fighting with you guys – the local media – to get more coverage for their own schools. In many ways, you get this by familiarizing people with who it is that you’re playing.
Q: Hey, Mark, it's different for you, right? It's a slightly different culture down in Olean because, when you're talking about the A-10, and you do well attendance-wise, those fans down there do know the A-10. They know the other coaches and players. They're prepared for those Saturday afternoon games.
Schmidt: I think our community is a little bit different. When people talk in Olean and Allegany, they talk about, "Are you going to the game tonight?" There's only one game, and that's Bonaventure basketball. When you're in Buffalo, and Canisius is playing and Buffalo is playing, Niagara is playing and the Sabres are playing. There's much more to do there. Here, when it's game night or game day, that's all there is. And that's why people come out and cheer for us. It's a little bit different.
And I agree with Reggie. There's so much, college basketball is just so saturated. There are so many games on television, even here in Olean. When we have a 9 o'clock game, and we have a 9 o'clock game this year against Davidson, well, the older people, they won't come. They'll sit and watch on TV because it's too late. So I think the television hurts a little bit, too. There's so much going on.
You hear the stories about the Aud and the doubleheaders downtown, it's never going to be like that again. Just like Bonaventure isn't going to play in the Final Four against Jacksonville. It's changed.
Q: Is that because Jacksonville's not going to be in the Final Four?
Schmidt: Yeah, right. But it's just because there's so much more for people to do. Reggie is right in terms of trying to tie it into other things on campus to get better crowds when we do play those games.
Q: How much is it, and Chris maybe you can help answer this, is because there's money involved, too? In order to use the arena, it costs money. Rather than have that revenue generated at Niagara – every dollar is precious with teams – to give up that money by playing downtown, is that an issue? Or is the greater good that we need to reach another generation of basketball fans? It seems younger kids haven't grown up with local college basketball.
Casey: I think you do have to reach a younger fan base. One of the challenges with that, when we were younger, you didn't have much else to do. You know, it was all about sports, getting outside, seeing your local teams play. Now you have 150 cable channels. You have video games, your iPads, your laptops, Instagram. There's a lot more that occupies kids and younger people.
I can't tell you that I know the financial spreadsheets of our university, but I know private schools are working and struggling for students and to pay the bills. You have the cost of opening the arena based on what you're going to draw at the arena, and then you have the cost of opening your own place and what you're going to draw there. How much are you going to walk away with? I definitely think that that's a factor and is involved in decision making.