The Sabres had warned me a few weeks ago I would see it but it’s one thing to talk about HarborCenter and it’s quite another to see a 236-foot crane soaring in front of First Niagara Center like we did Friday. This project is officially on now.
I don’t have any question it’s going to be spectacular, a game-changer for downtown and for the local hockey scene in general. It’s going to have all kinds of impact on the city, and that’s why a building most connected to hockey immediately came into my mind when I read over the weekend about some new policies from the committee that runs the NCAA basketball tournament.
The committee has announced it is no longer going to host the Sweet 16 and regional final round in domes, and that’s long overdue. In the past, domes were in play because they were used as dress rehearsals for stadiums that were hosting the Final Four the next year. Now, they’re gone.
We’re getting the second- and third-round games again here next March (remember, there’s a First Four now). Nothing is awarded past 2015. It’s time that Buffalo makes the big push for a regional final.
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, a superb partner for the city in all of these bids, tried for one in ’14 and ’15 but ultimately we got the opening weekend games and the ’15 regional final went to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.
We’ve had some great moments downtown during the NCAA’s previous visits in 2000, 2004, 2007 and 2010. I think quickly about the Seton Hall buzzer-beater over Oregon in ’00, the visits by eventual national champion Connecticut and No. 1 Saint Joseph’s in ’04, VCU’s upset of Duke in ’07 and the Syracuse Invitational that turned the building into a sea of Orange in ’10.
All the way back to the arena’s opening in 1996, Larry Quinn said the city’s preference was the opening weekend because of the eight teams and eight fan bases. It’s a valid point. The economic impact of the tourney is said to be in the $5 million range.
But ticket prices are rising and it’s not a first-time event anymore. If not Syracuse, will people come? I’ve heard from plenty of Buffalo fans that they want to see a regional final, to see a big name cut down the nets en route to the Final Four. This is the time.
Domes are terrible for basketball. When I covered the Final Four, I would openly laugh at how high some of the people were sitting. And let’s not forget the players. The depth perception issue in domes is real for shooters, especially since the NCAA puts the court in the middle of the stadium to maximize the number of seats.
The NCAA correctly wants to go back to arenas until the Final Four, but it’s a tougher field for Buffalo now that new buildings have opened in places like Pittsburgh, Louisville, Newark and Columbus. Newly renovated Madison Square Garden also is in the mix.
When I talked to Terry Pegula at that infamous post-groundbreaking chat with reporters, he made it clear the team is thinking big, aiming for a return of the Frozen Four or the World Junior Championships. They had good runs here the first time, but just imagine how much better they could be with HarborCenter – with another big hotel, retail, and a huge sports/bar restaurant at the arena’s front door – in place.
The same is true for hoops. The newest addition to Pegulaville can take the downtown arena to a spot on the national map it has not yet visited.