The league is closing in on a deal to bring the tournament to the Times Forum.
TAMPA - The Southeastern Conference athletic directors voted Thursday to have the league office strike a deal with Tampa and the St. Pete Times Forum to host their men's basketball tournament once between 2009-12.
While negotiations could break down, the decision during a teleconference all but signals a slam dunk for an area that missed its previous shot at the prestigious event.
"It is not a done deal, but we have felt in our discussions with them that they were very impressed with what we have to offer in the region," said Ron Campbell, president of the Times Forum and Tampa Bay Lightning and the chairman of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.
"Obviously, we've got so many first-class facilities and we think we do a pretty good job at the Forum as well. We felt throughout the process we were hopefully going to be awarded one, but until they make the official announcement, we're going to hustle and work hard and do whatever we can to make sure that nothing goes astray."
SEC associate commissioner Brad Davis acknowledged that's not likely and said Tampa Bay is "very, very close" to being able to celebrate. He said the league also will be working on deals with Atlanta, its longtime home for the tournament, New Orleans and Nashville, the other finalists pared from an initial field that included Birmingham, Ala., and Little Rock, Ark.
The goal, he said, is to finalize the deals and announce which city will host which year by the end of October.
"It's a great step in the right direction for our outstanding sports community," said Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins, who hand-delivered the area's bid to Davis in his Birmingham office in August. "It's amazing what we've been able to accomplish."
Tampa Bay officials bid unsuccessfully for the 2006 or 2008 SEC tournament. The SEC chose Nashville and Atlanta, respectively, citing concerns that Tampa was too far from the geographic center of the league and that could hurt the weekend attendance.
As teams lose and their fans head home, those tickets become available for others if they can conveniently reach the site. Fans in South Carolina or Alabama can drive to Atlanta, for instance, but it would be another eight hours to Tampa.
In 1990, Orlando had the tournament and had trouble drawing fans, although it didn't help that Kentucky was ineligible and Florida was far from a powerhouse.
"For a number of years, that weighed heavily on our ADs," Davis said.
Times have changed.
"We've seen a growth in the interest in the tournament and, while that is a factor, fans being able to drive in, we've got a strong core base of fans that come for the weekend regardless of how their teams do," Davis said, adding that the bay area is an "easy and reasonable" airplane ride to reach. "We'll sell the tickets. Plus, you have to look at the size of the market. When you take Tampa and Orlando, it's a very, very significant population base."
That base has a far lengthier track record of supporting college basketball now than it had in 2001.
More than 58,500 fans came out to the Times Forum for NCAA first- and second-round tournaments games in 2003. The subregion included Florida and Auburn. The ACC men's basketball tournament will be played in the Times Forum in 2007, followed in 2008 by NCAA first- and second-round tournament games and the women's Final Four.
"We've tried to do our best to show the SEC that this is a community that's going to wrap its arms around their event and embrace it to its fullest," Higgins said. "It's real exciting for us."