- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Since 2001, when the NCAA men's basketball committee formally included the play-in games as part of the NCAA tournament, a lot has changed. The NCAA has expanded the tournament, adding would-be No. 12-seeds to the mix. It has attempted a best-of-all-bad-options rebrand, calling the play-in games the first round despite the fact that a staggering majority of the teams in the tournament don't participate in said "first round."
(This bit of semantics wouldn't be a big deal were it not so routinely confusing. Thursday and Friday are the first round, but the NCAA wants us to call them the second round. When you have to reference these rounds 12 months a year, things get frustrating in a hurry.)
The play-ins still feel like play-ins, but the success of teams in the First Four since its inception in 2011 -- VCU went to the Final Four that March; La Salle streaked to the 2013 Sweet 16 -- have raised its profile, or at least made it a less undesirable bracket destination. And the event is still evolving, even if the tournament format is done expanding for some time.
For 12 years, one constant has remained: Dayton's role as play-in host.
And rightfully so. Not only is the event a point of pride for the city in and of itself, but it feels genuinely loved. Ticket sales are always close to sellout level -- in 2013, they surpassed it -- as Dayton residents have flocked to watch teams in which they have little or no rooting interest. That's love.
In other words, it's hard to imagine finding a place that would take to the event the way Dayton has ... but it seems the NCAA is at least going to look. From the Dayton Business Journal:
The NCAA confirmed Friday it will wait until at least next year to select sites for the event in 2016 and beyond. Local officials had been lobbying the NCAA to secure an earlier commitment for the First Four — which is being held here in 2014 and 2015 — for as much as a decade.
“Dayton is still a favorable site, and the end result could be that the First Four is played in Dayton for many years to come,” said David Worlock, an NCAA spokesperson, in a statement to the DBJ. “This is simply a byproduct of the changing landscape of college athletics and due to this ever-changing landscape, the Men’s Basketball Committee is reluctant to enter into a long-term agreement -- for any round(s) of the tournament."
That, of course, makes sense for the NCAA. As SI's Andy Glockner notes, the considerations that led to the original selection and continuation of Dayton have changed. More teams participating in play-in games means more travel issues to balance, and the NCAA continues to double-down on the importance of geographic considerations in its bracketing. Plus, with all due respect to Dayton, it is not exactly the warmest place in the world in March. Dayton might not have as much to offer as another city. Maybe not, but who knows? That's why you keep the bidding open. It's not like Dayton couldn't win the thing back.
And with all that said ... it would be a bit of a shame to see the event move. The pride Daytonians feel about the opening round is palpable. You don't even have to look that hard: Spend five minutes talking to any of the on-site volunteers at UD Arena, and not only will you get a detailed history of the city's obsession with hoops, you'll also hear local pride bubbling over. Dayton packs the play-in games not only because it loves basketball, but because the city feels ownership over the event and its own image as it is reflected nationally on the eve of one of the biggest sports competitions in the world. Residents there are invested. They're all-in.
The NCAA has to make decisions based on its own best interests, of course, and there may be another site out there with more to offer. But it will be hard, if not outright impossible, to replace what Dayton has brought to the event. Where else is the play-in -- excuse me, the "first round" -- going to sell out?