The atmosphere at Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night for the Division III men's basketball championship game was electric as Wisconsin-Oshkosh defeated Swarthmore 96-82 in front of an announced crowd of 1,710.
It was the first time the Coliseum played host to the Final Four, and organizers came away pleased with the fan response for two days of games and optimistic that future tournaments will be even better.
“Fort Wayne has exceeded our expectations,” said Sam Atkinson, who is chair of the NCAA Division III men's basketball committee and associate athletic director for communications at Gallaudet University.
“We knew Fort Wayne would do a great job, but it went even above what we thought it might be. We were so thrilled to see the student-athletes and their experience here and what Fort Wayne provided to them. The hospitality and the friendly faces, it was just an overall great experience for all four teams.”
It is possible, however, that the actual championship game may not return to Fort Wayne. The NCAA may be moving to a new format as early as next year in which the championship games for Divisions I, II and III would all be at the same venue, following recommendations by the basketball and championship committees to have joint championships at least by 2025. According to the NCAA's governance website, the rationale from the Division III perspective would be the “unequaled opportunity to promote the division.”
Fort Wayne – which had been selected in 2017 after a bid process to host the Division III semifinals and finals from 2019 to 2022, with Manchester University serving as the host school – losing the championship game might actually result in financial and tourism gain.
If joint championship games are approved for 2020 – moving next year's Division I, II and III finals to Atlanta – then there is a plan under consideration that would give Fort Wayne the Division III quarterfinals and semifinals. That would translate to six games and an all-star game over two days, instead of three games plus an all-star game.
“It's just a matter of looking at the schedule,” said Nathan Dennison, vice president of sales for the Coliseum. “Next year, we're also hosting the Division I women's basketball regional, and that event has some moving parts, like they bring their own court, so the dates are at an absolute premium next year. There would be more moving parts, but we're up to the challenge.”
Also, were a change of format to happen, the Coliseum's contract to play host to Division III games could be extended to 2023, sources said.
“It's too soon to decide; we don't know when (joint championships) are going to be held,” Atkinson said. “But we have contingency plans set up so if we have to make our move next year, then we know how to do that. But we're hoping that in the next five years that will happen and Fort Wayne will get enough of a heads-up about that.”
The Coliseum sold over 4,000 tickets for the games Friday and Saturday, Dennison said, and the announced attendance Friday was 1,982.
“I think from the Coliseum perspective, it has gone very smoothly. We've learned a lot through this process about the needs of the event for our building,” he said. “It has really shown us how great our staff and its dedication and loyalty is to everything we do here.
“It's been a long week, but I think the feedback we've received from the national committee has been very helpful and very positive. It's been a great first year and we're looking forward to several more years of hosting the Division III event.”
The Coliseum is already considering changes to the seating configuration and traffic flow around the court for the NCAA.
“Nothing that can't be fixed through a few minor tweaks to how we do things,” Dennison said.
Mike Schauer, who coached Wheaton in its Friday semifinal loss to UW-Oshkosh, met with local organizers Saturday and lauded community service activities for the teams at East Allen County Schools and an invitation-only banquet.
“I think overall, the venue was terrific and really made this feel like a Division I-type atmosphere for the student-athletes and really made this feel like a national championship for them,” Atkinson said. “It really made them feel special. There are little things that can be improved, but that's true of any championship, and overall we're really satisfied with how things panned out.”
• Sports coverage