Savannah Enmarket Arena hosts NCAA basketball men’s and women’s tournaments

Don’t tell us, show us. That’s how to make an impression.

What’s effective in so many aspects of life applies to the business of putting on events at Savannah’s newest showplace, Enmarket Arena. The facility, which officially opened in February, is so new that it doesn’t have that much of a track record for sporting events — yet — but it’s building on its resume with each event hosted.

“That’s the thing. It’s not about showing them this is what you can do,” said Monty Jones Jr., general manager of Enmarket Arena. “It’s about having examples of some (events) that you have done.”

Thus the added relevance of the inaugural Hostilo Hoops Community Classic this week at Enmarket Arena. The Division I college basketball slate features eight women’s teams playing Monday through Wednesday, then off for Thanksgiving, then a total of 10 men’s teams hitting the court Friday through Sunday.

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It’s a classic format rather than a tournament, in that the entire schedule is predetermined. The women’s teams — Fairleigh Dickinson, Illinois Chicago, Austin Peay, Davidson, Norfolk State, Purdue Fort Wayne, UT Martin and Marshall — play the first three days at 11:30 am, 2, 4:30 and 7 pm

The men’s teams have a different schedule, with Friday games at 11 am, 1:30, 4, 6:30 and 9 pm; and Saturday and Sunday at noon, 2:30, 5 and 7:30 pm

Schools competing are James Madison (coached by former Georgia Southern head coach Mark Byington), South Dakota State, Valparaiso, Towson, Fairfield, South Alabama, Evansville, Mercer, Robert Morris and, on Friday only, Coastal Georgia.

It’s a festival for hoops fans and also a beta test, if you will, for Enmarket Arena. The basketball operation at the multipurpose facility went for a test drive with the Harlem Globetrotters’ appearance in April. That was one night, a mix of entertainment and basketball by a professional touring team that’s been around seemingly forever.

This is six days of hoops, hosting a double-digit number of squads and their supporters in the Hostess City, with all of its infrastructure in the hospitality and tourism businesses: Hotels, restaurants, shopping, transportation, tours, etc.

“By having these examples like us bringing on our first tournament, that’s only going to help us,” Jones said Friday.

Help in terms of future editions of the Hostilo Hoops Community Classic, which Jones said will include teams from Power 5 conferences. He did confirm earlier reports that the University of Georgia and Xavier have committed to the 2023 tournamentwith those contracts still to be finalized and more announcements coming perhaps as soon as this month.

More hoops, including NBA?

Help also in terms of attracting other basketball events, such as women’s and men’s conference tournaments and NBA exhibition games.

Per the latter, Jones said the arena would be looking to schedule games for NBA teams in the next two to five years.

“You have some of those obligations already set,” he said. “It’s just a part of us continuing our conversations with teams to come here and fit it within their schedules. Looking here for Savannah, just surrounding us, you’ve got Charlotte, Atlanta, Memphis, Orlando. So that’s all within a drive, pretty much driving distance.”

The arena would be a home-court advantage for Savannah State and Georgia Southern’s men’s and women’s teams. Their athletic directors have expressed interest in the possibility of regular-season games against high-interest opponents at Enmarket Arena — say, the Eagles playing UGA or Georgia Tech at a more neutral court.

SSU has Tiger Arena and GS has Hanner Fieldhouse and is building a larger convocation center, so it would make financial sense for them to play a home game off campus.

Also intriguing would be Enmarket Arena as the site of a conference tournament. Georgia Southern plays in the Sun Belt, a Group of 5 conference which has its men’s and women’s hoops tournaments through 2025 in Pensacola, Florida. SSU is a member of the NCAA Division II Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which has played its tournaments in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

“It’s all about building those relationships and rapport,” said Jones, noting that Enmarket Arena officials work with the Savannah Sports Council, Visit Savannah and other local tourism bureaus such as with the Greater Pooler Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau for the Thanksgiving week basketball event.

Their pursuit of college sports is not limited to conferences with Georgia ties, Jones said. It’s also not limited to basketball. Conferences, from majors to mid-majors, seek attractive locales for other sports, from volleyball to wrestling to eSports.

“We can still look to host an ACC tournament without having a local, affiliated team within that conference,” he said. “Even looking at a Big 12 or something like that, where there’s no team around. You don’t have to have a school within your immediate area in order to host that.”

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Enmarket Arena is not large enough to be in play for an SEC or ACC men’s basketball tournament. It maxes out at about 8,500, said Jones, who believes a women’s tournament cannot be ruled out.

“It’s all relative to what the demand is,” he said.

The Hostilo event this year offers seating in the lower bowl and not the upper level, so about 5,500 seats, Jones said, adding that future events could include the entire arena.

The idea of ​​squeezing in more seating, from floor seats to standing-room only, might bring the notion of hosting an NCAA Tournament first round of games. That’s not something Jones will rule out.

It’s worth noting that this is the city’s second attempt at a Thanksgiving holiday week basketball event. The Savannah Invitational had a two-year run at the Savannah Civic Center that included the Georgia Southern men (2016) and Savannah State women (2017) as well as DI programs from around the country.

Savannah is a ‘hockey town’

The early success of Savannah’s first professional ice hockey team, the Ghost Piratesin selling out the arena for games this month will not go unnoticed by the ECHL franchise’s NHL counterparts.

“It just takes the avenue to show, especially with this season, showing that hey, Savannah is a hockey town,” Jones said.

Savannah could be a preseason stop for the Ghost Pirates’ NHL affiliate, the Vegas Golden Knights, or any of the teams playing in buildings operated by Oak View Group, such as the Seattle Kraken, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Arizona Coyotes. Oak View Group manages and operates Enmarket Arena.

The Ghost Pirates’ capacity for hockey games (6,876) will not deter NHL teams from playing preseason games here, Jones said.

“A majority of them play in bigger facilities, but they’re playing to that locale, to gain new fans,” he said.

Savannah can show, with examples, that it has the facility and the surrounding amenities to put on hockey. Add that sport to the list, with possibilities for more basketball, volleyball, wrestling (collegiate and pro), eSports, martial arts, who knows? Beach volleyball?

“It’s wide open,” Jones said. “We’re not going to look to limit ourselves.”

Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and Email him at [email protected] Twitter: @NathanDominitz

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