DAYTON, Ohio — Dayton is the epicenter of the basketball world for the next two weeks, with more than three-dozen high school and NCAA tournament games taking place there over the span of 10 days.

But while the on-court performances are what most people will talk about, it’s the off-court experiences of thousands of players, coaches, family members and fans that could mean the most to the Gem City.

What You Need To Know

  • University of Dayton Arena will host 39 games in 20 days this March

  • UD leaders stressed Dayton is built for basketball and the community loves the sport

  • Princeton High School praised the city for its support from everything from meals to trip planning 

  • Beyond being something to watch, the tournament games provide millions in economic impact to local businesses 

The action began Thursday with the start of the Ohio high school girl’s state tournament at University of Dayton Arena. The boys’ state semifinals and finals are being played there next week.

In between, the historic arena is set to once again serve as the opening round site of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, commonly referred to as the First Four.

UD Arena underwent an $80 million renovation to turn it into a state-of-the-art arena. (Casey Weldon/Spectrum News 1)
UD Arena underwent an $80 million renovation to turn it into a state-of-the-art arena. (Casey Weldon/Spectrum News 1)

When all is said and done, UD Arena will have played host to 39 games in 20 days. That includes the regular-season finale for the Dayton Flyers men’s team.

“This is what we’re built for. This is what we do,” said Neil Sullivan, vice president and director of athletics for the University of Dayton.

UD Arena has been the site of 129 NCAA tournament games since opening on Dec. 6, 1969, more than any other facility in the country. It’s also been the home of several OHSAA basketball district and regional games over the years, and the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.

The university completed a roughly $80 million transformation of the 13,000-seat facility in 2019.

“Our building is built for basketball. We host some other things there, but we’re really not a multipurpose venue. We are built for basketball,” Sullivan said.

The boys tournament had been seeking a new home for future seasons after Ohio State University — the longtime site of the boys’ state tournament — and the OHSAA did not have a contract past 2021 for future boys tournaments. It was later announced that the boy’s and girl’s state championships would take place at the home of the UD Flyers from 2022 through 2024.

“We’re always looking for opportunities,” Sullivan said of the chance to host the state tournament games. “We felt we are the right size [building], but we also have a great location, a good parking situation and you know, we’ve got a good affordable city.”

More than just basketball to Dayton

Overall, things went as planned during last year’s tournaments, Sullivan said. He noted expecting even greater success this year now that they have one under the belts.

The girls’ tournament games tipped off Thursday at 11 a.m., and the action was smooth sailing so far. 

Princeton High School — about 16 miles north of downtown Cincinnati — doesn’t take the floor until Friday at 6 p.m. in a Division I semifinal showdown against Midview High School from northeast Ohio.

Even a day before the matchup, Princeton’s athletic director, Joe Roberts, was already calling the experience surreal.

“It’s extremely exciting to have the opportunity to go to UD Arena and experience this for our girls,” he said. “It’s big for our student-athletes and our coaches, obviously, but also for the rest of our students and our community.”

The Lady Vikings are going for their third girls’ state title in program history, and Roberts is hoping a not-so-small army of fans come up to support senior Sole’ Williams and her teammates on Friday.

Roberts believes there’ll be at least a few hundred Princeton fans in the stands at game time.

“The momentum continues to grow, and we’re going to have some great fans. Coming to UD Arena on Friday evening and hopefully beyond that,” he added.

Princeton is only about a 40-minute drive from Dayton. For that reason, the Vikings don’t plan to spend the night in Dayton if they won on Friday, Roberts said. They wouldn’t play the D-I title game until Saturday at 8:30 p.m., he added, noting that the coaching staff would want them to sleep in their own beds.

Even though they won’t be spending the night, many other fans from across the state will book hotels or lodgings. The tens of thousands of other fans will also go to restaurants, shop at stores, maybe have a few adult beverages at a local saloon as well.

There’s also indirect spending on things such as food suppliers and overtime hours paid to employees.

“It all adds up,” said Jacquelyn Powell, president and chief executive of the Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Roberts praised the Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau for their work with Princeton and the 15 other teams involved in the high school tournaments. The agency did everything from arranging team meals to helping team families and fans with other travel details.

City officials view the tournament games as a way to bring economic vitality to the city and earn media exposure. (Photo courtesy City of Dayton)
City officials view the tournament games as a way to bring economic vitality to the city and earn media exposure. (Photo courtesy City of Dayton)

“What’s really valuable for us is that many of these folks may never have been to Dayton before, so these two weeks represent an opportunity to give them their first exposure to our community,” Powell said. 

Nick Brandell, general manager of Jimmie’s Ladder 11, said he’d already seen a few basketball fans trickle into his Brown Street restaurant by Thursday afternoon.

The restaurant is about a mile and a half from UD Arena.

“These games bring a lot of attention down to our area, and they bring a lot of people, a lot of traffic along with them,” he said. “That’s always a good thing for a restaurant.”

January through early March can be a difficult post-holiday period for businesses. These games can mean a nice uptick in business for them.

“I don’t think I’ve ever looked at my watch and thought now’s not a good time for an extra influx in cash,” Brandell said with a laugh.

Powell has worked in the tourism business in Dayton for the past 30 years. During that time, she’s seen the NCAA Tournament play-in game grow into a regional event.

Today, the First Four — the first two games of the NCAA Tournament — brings in roughly $5.2 million in direct spending to Dayton, Powell said. That doesn’t include any indirect spend or anything linked to the “massive media exposure” of being on national TV.

“It’s one of Dayton’s top events of the year,” she added.

Powell didn’t have an estimated economic impact figure for the high school tournaments. She described the current data as not being “inclusive enough.”

While she couldn’t give a specific number, Powell believes the tournaments will have a “considerable impact” this year and the years to come.

Sullivan described the next two weeks in Dayton as “a once-in-a-lifetime moment” for many of the athletes. He said UD is committed to providing a “championship-level experience” to their athletes, the coaches and their families. 

One reason they’re willing to do that, he said, is because of how much the Dayton community loves the game of basketball.

“If there’s a game at UD Arena, people are going to show up, they’re going to be loud and they’re going to support the teams on the floor,” he said.

Sullivan couldn’t commit to what the future holds for either the Ohio basketball tournaments or the First Four. But he thinks the past has shown the city and people of Dayton will support them. He expects to see it again over the next two weeks.

“We’d love to continue hosting them for as long as it makes sense for [the NCAA and OHSAA] and for us,” he said.