The Final Four ends today. Gonzaga will play Baylor in what promises to be a classic championship game. The two were considered the two best all year long.
Due to COVID-19 the entire tournament was staged in Indiana this year. Six different schools hosted the event. However, in a normal year, the Final Four starts in Dayton, Ohio with the First Four.
Why does Dayton host the First Four (i.e. the play in games) of the NCAA College Basketball Tournament? Good question! There must be a reason for doing so as it has occurred for the past 17 years.
The NCAA College Basketball Tournament, AKA March Madness, has grown into a national phenomenon. Those who don’t normally watch college basketball will often participate in an office bracket contest, endeavoring to fill in the most complete set of winners.
The NCAA tournament expanded to a field of 64 in 1985. There are over 300 teams in NCAA Division I basketball who can qualify for the tournament. Beginning in 2001 the NCAA began what was termed a “play in game” so that 65 teams were selected and two of those 65 played each other to see who would enter the field of 64 teams.
Offered the prospect of millions of more dollars from the television networks (i.e. CBS and Turner) the NCAA was tempted to expand the field to 96 teams in the year 2011. The backlash from the public somewhat curbed the NCAA’s greed and they compromised by expanded the field to 68 with eight teams endeavoring to play into the field of 64. These games between these eight teams are now known as “The First Four”
All of these games are played in Dayton, Ohio. Why Dayton, Ohio? It is not large, is a city of almost 800,000 in the metro area, but has proven to be a dedicated basketball community over the years. The University of Dayton (UD) Flyers (in honor of the Wright Brothers, from Dayton) consistently sell out UD Arena. The team has traditionally been strong one, even reaching the NCAA Final Four against Lew Alcindor and the UCLA Bruins in 1967.
Dayton for years has hosted early round games of the NCAA, including games with Larry Bird when he was at Indiana State University.
So the NCAA can count on these games being sold out. That is one reason Dayton holds the play in games.
More importantly is aviation. Dayton has a large and accessible airport. The airport has plenty of capacity and a relatively low volume of traffic. The NCAA now stations airplanes near the locations of the play in teams so they are able to fly in and out of Dayton efficiently for their games. Remember, the winners of the games have to be in another city for a game just two days later.
Besides the large airport, Dayton is located within a 90 minute flight of 55% of the US population (Travel) . This makes it an ideal location. So many of the NCAA tournament First Four teams are within just a few hours flight of Dayton. Ohio as a state has 60% of the US population living within 600 miles. Fifty percent of the US population lives within a one day drive of Dayton (Metro)
So why does Dayton host the First Four of the NCAA College Basketball Tournament? First is their proven attendance to support the game. However, the aviation factors are even greater. A large and accessible airport within a 90 minute flight of most participating schools. The road to the Final Four normally starts in Dayton.
Note: An earlier version of this blog was posted in 2019