JOHNSON CITY - A hot team and prior experience have East Tennessee State University officials hoping for better results on and off the court as they host this week's Atlantic Sun Men's Basketball Tournament for the second straight year.
Quarterfinal action tips off at 1 p.m. today with Belmont taking on Gardner-Webb inside Memorial Center, but by Wednesday afternoon ETSU Athletic Director Dave Mullins was sounding very pleased with ticket sales.
"We're at about three times our book sales last year, so we feel like with the walk-up sales on Thursday we're going to be in pretty good shape," Mullins said.
Mullins said the operating budget for this weekend's tournament is about $145,000, and more than 1,100 ticket books had been sold by midafternoon Wednesday. He said he expects sponsorship money, hospitality passes and parking passes to put the event in the black, something that did not occur last year after ETSU was upset by Gardner-Webb in Thursday's first round.
"You don't ever want to not break even or make a little money, but we had determined that the experience itself and the exposure was worth it," Mullins said of last year's tournament.
The Buccaneers are 22-8, won the conference with a 16-2 mark, and have won 14 of 15 games heading into tonight's 7 p.m. quarterfinal matchup with Stetson, so officials are hoping for sellout crowds of about 6,800 at Memorial Center this weekend. If the top two seeds win today and Friday, the Bucs will face archrival and defending tournament champion Belmont at 4 p.m. Saturday.
The tournament has four sessions - two Thursday and one each on Friday and Saturday - and session passes are $20 each while a book good for all four sessions is $60.
Mullins was coy about whether ETSU would bid for next year's tournament, which will combine the men's and women's events in a four-day format. He said the tournament committee will meet Friday to establish a framework for the upcoming bidding process, and that A-Sun officials are promising a format that will reduce the financial risk to host schools.
"We want to hear the whole package so we can more accurately determine what our role should be," Mullins said.
"Of course there's interest in that. We think it's great for Johnson City and our campus."
ETSU has become a location of choice for tournaments in just its second year in the conference, Mullins said. The men's and women's indoor track championships were here last month, men's and women's tennis is here April 19-21, and the outdoor track championships are here May 11-12. Indoor track and tennis are coming back in 2008, along with women's golf, and the outdoor track event is up for bid.
ETSU certainly impressed Atlantic Sun representatives last year, Assistant Commissioner Matt Wilson said Wednesday, who also said he expects terrific attendance this weekend due in large part to the Bucs' record.
"We couldn't ask for better partners than East Tennessee State, Johnson City and the whole Tri-Cities area," Wilson said. "They've been very supportive since the moment ETSU announced they were joining our league, and I think that shows in the quality of the championship, the number of fans and the corporate support, which has been great."
Local hotels, including tournament host Carnegie Hotel, were already gearing up by Wednesday as teams began arriving for afternoon practice time. ETSU Strength Coach Lee Morrow was busy welcoming the teams for their afternoon and evening shootarounds, the Mini-Dome's exterior landscaping was freshly mulched, and facility manager Tom Trent had the dome's interior spit-shined.
Among those hoping for a different on-court outcome was Bob Tropes of General Shale Brick, the tournament's main sponsor.
"This team looks like they're having a lot of fun, and of course they're winning, so I hope they can carry it through the weekend," Tropes said.
He said General Shale has agreed to sponsor the 2008, 2009 and 2010 tournaments as well, regardless of location, but added that ETSU's involvement has impressed his company.
"Our commitment is to the tournament and to the conference, but that really is based on our experience with ETSU as the first host of our sponsorship," Tropes said. "They really did a good job running it."
He said General Shale and the Atlantic Sun cover a similar geographic area, so the marketing fit is a natural.
Other tournament sponsors include Blue Lizard Sunscreen, Powell Construction, Atmos Energy, Pepsi and Cingular Wireless. Tickets are available at the ticket office on the west side of the Mini-Dome or by calling 439-3878.