Round-the-clock basketball won’t be limited to downtown Kansas City this week.
College basketball fans may be taking longer lunch hours and brown-bagging it to the Independence Events Center, just as they do at Municipal Auditorium.
While the 78th edition of the Division I NAIA men’s championship will be played Wednesday through March 24 at Municipal Auditorium, the 35th Division I women’s championship will make its debut in Independence.
That means 32 women’s teams playing 31 games at the same times over seven days, same as the men.
“Kansas City has been such a great supporter of the men’s tournament, we thought over the years about bringing the women here, too,” said NAIA president Jim Carr. “The only question was were there enough corporate sponsors and supporters and fans to support both tournaments, and I guess we’re going to find out.
“Certainly, Independence gives us a little bit of separation, and there’s a community out there that’s very excited to be the host. “
The women’s tournament began in 1981 in Kansas City, which also was home to the event until 1983 and again from 1986 to 1989 before it was staged in locations around the country, most recently Frankfort, Ky. In its first three years, the women’s tournament was an eight-team competition played at Kemper Arena in the mornings before the men’s games followed.
When the tournament returned to Kansas City in 1986, the field expanded to 16 teams, and the opening round and quarterfinals were played at Bartle Hall with the semifinals and finals at Kemper Arena. From 1987 to 1989, the opening round and quarterfinals were played at Municipal Auditorium.
The women’s tournament, like the men’s, now has a 32-team field, and 15 schools have qualified for both tournaments, which is about the average in recent years. For example, Freed-Hardeman (Tenn). University, last year’s women’s runner-up, has the top-ranked women’s team and the No. 4-seeded men’s team and will open tournament play on different days. Benedictine (Kan.) College’s women’s team will play at 4 p.m. Wednesday in Independence, and the men will play at 7 p.m. Wednesday, creating a doubleheader for Ravens fans.
Rather than divert attention from the men’s tournament downtown, Carr hopes fans will be able to sample both men and women’s basketball, especially fans from the schools who are doubling up.
“I think we’ll get some spillover from people who might travel to see their women’s team play, and the men’s team is also here,” Carr said. “It will be interesting to see how much traction the women’s tournament can get. We talk about this every year. It’s a challenge these days to get people to get out of their houses or sports bars and come out and watch live basketball instead of watching on television. That challenge is not going away and I don’t think we’ll cannibalize ourselves by bringing the women here.”
Carr said the schools prefer the format of having both tournaments in the same area. It makes it more efficient for athletic department employees as well as spirit squads and other supporters of the school.
“I’ve talked to a number of athletic directors and presidents who don’t have to make a choice,” hr said.
The women’s tournament is under contract to play in Independence for two years. The city of Independence has been doing marketing and selling tickets to groups.
“The Independence Events Center is the perfect size for NAIA events,” Carr said. “If we get the same crowds as we do at Municipal, it will feel like the place is packed.”
Indeed, the Independence arena seats about 6,000 for basketball, which is more than the NAIA draws for most of its sessions. But no matter how well the women’s event does in Independence, Carr does not foresee the men’s tournament ever moving to the newer arena.
“You never know what’s going to happen, but Municipal is the home of NAIA basketball, and that’s where we plan to stay.”