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Official Review by Eric Taylor, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Ohio Valley Conference has crowned its basketball champion and representative for the NCAA Tournament in Music City, USA, AKA Nashville, Tennessee for 20 of the last 21 years.
The combined men’s and women’s tournament has been held at the Municipal Auditorium on eight occasions (1994, 1995, 1996, 2004, 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013) and hosted just the men’s tournament in 1989. Municipal also hosted the tournament way back in December 1967, when the tournament was held at the beginning of the season.
The OVC shifted its bracket from a traditional 1-seed vs. 8-seed, 2 vs. 7, etc. format to a merit-based format that rewards the top two teams from the regular season. The top two seeds receive a double bye and are guaranteed to not play until the semi-finals. The 3- and 4-seed are also rewarded with a first-round bye.
The OVC moved to divisional play for the 2012-2013 season. The East and West divisional champions are guaranteed the top two seeds, while seeds 3-8 are determined by conference record, regardless of division.
The basement of Municipal also houses the Musicians’ Hall of Fame. It’s hard to imagine any venue in Nashville not having an ode to music in some form or fashion.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The food is not overly simple, but with Nashville overflowing with great dining options, it's a tough proposition to advise a fan to fill up on food inside the venue. The good news is you are probably visiting the venue more than one day, so you can enjoy some of the staples of the concession stand that pair so well with a sporting event without feeling as though you compromised your appetite for something tastier downtown.
Southern Fried Hospitality and Cantina del Sol are two of the custom food carts inside Municipal, although one appears to offer the same food options as the other. The prices are also on the steep side. A cheeseburger basket with chips and a soda will run you $11.75. The soda alone is $4.00.
It is no small feat transforming Nashville's old and cranky senior citizen of entertainment venues into a welcoming and aesthetically pleasing basketball gym, but hardworking OVC guys like Kyle Schwartz and Brian Pulley are able to pull it off.
In order to provide a similar effect to what you will see in an NCAA Tournament setting, each school's band is set up on the floor just behind either basket. This provides some very entertaining commentary and colorful sounds to distract an opposing player while he or she shoots free throws. This is a genius move, because you rarely notice a sparse crowd when the band is creative and energetic.
The Ohio Valley Conference branded itself very well for the tournament. It's very disappointing when you go to an event and are not able to tell what type of event you are attending until you reach your seat and see the stage/floor/ice. The OVC did well with signage across the outside circular perimeter of Municipal Auditorium. Whether it was an OVC logo or a school's yard signs scattered across the front of the venue's sidewalk area as you made the walk from your parking spot to the entrance, it is no secret that the OVC was proud to be in Nashville again. And the feeling is mutual for the city.
One of the special facts about attending a conference championship or tournament is that it's usually about more than just the event surrounding the week. It's a celebration of the entire season. An end-of-the-year party, if you will. Fans will migrate from all over the Ohio Valley (hence the name of the conference) for this annual celebration.
Back to the pleasing aesthetic once inside the auditorium, where the action would take place. The OVC logo was copied, pasted, and spread across each end zone on concave wall. The red, black and gold of the OVC logo paired nicely in front of a black and white silhouette of Nashville's unmistakable skyline to create a juxtaposition that really captured and held your eye.
The crowd was largest on Friday night for the semi-finals when the 1- and 2-seeds were playing. The 1- and 2-seed (Belmont 1, Murray State 2) get byes to the semis (two rounds) in the OVC Tournament, with the four lowest seeds not even qualifying for the tournament. This format began in 2011 and appears to be the setup for the foreseeable future.
Halftime was interactive, resembling that of a college basketball home game. On one night, two fans (one at each basket) play the game where the winner is the first to hit a lay-up, free throw and three-pointer. On this night, the younger kid won and proved youth was king for at least a night.
Although they didn't have as many fans as Murray State or Belmont, the Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky fans were very loud. During their game with Morehead State, Tennessee Tech fans tried to alleviate the noise advantage held by Morehead and broke out some artificial loud clappers. Unfortunately for Tech, they did not have much reason to use said clappers, other than to annoy those around them.
One portion of the game presentation that probably sounds like a great idea at one of the many planning and logistics brainstorming sessions, but seems to fall a little short is the Battle of the Bands during the final media timeout of each game. Both bands play really hard, and it becomes more of a battle of which brass instrument and snare drum will be the first to flatten the cilia to your inner ear. It's really tough to decide a winner, but it's not like we're deciding the next American Idol, so it's honestly not that bad of a promotion.
This place is old, but the OVC does a great job using a little old-fashioned elbow grease to shine the tires and wheels on this Nashville landmark and turning it into a great place to experience a college basketball conference tournament.
Municipal Auditorium sits in an older and less developed area of downtown. Yes, you are about a five-block walk from the liveliest part of Nashville, but you are still within earshot of great music venues. You can also stay in hotels closer to downtown that are still within walking distance to the Municipal Auditorium.
Once you've eaten and enjoyed a day and evening of hoops, take to the streets and enjoy the Nashville nightlife. You don't have to bar hop (although you easily could) to taste Music City. The music downtown cruises up Broadway and sprints to each of your waiting ears. Make sure you at least walk down Broadway so you can take in the random people on the street singing and playing as well as (or better than in most cases) those making money. This will make the walk seem short as you make your way to visit a classic honky tonk like Tootsie's.
Continue your journey down Broadway toward the river, turn left and head up the slight incline of 2nd Avenue. Better yet, since you're in the South, it may be best that I tell you to take a left at the Hard Rock Café. We give directions by landmarks, not street names. You can be certain that 2nd Avenue is equal parts hipster and historical. Step inside the Wildhorse Saloon and try the food and maybe hold your belt buckle as you try a cheesy line dance.
Whatever musical notes strikes your chord, you can find it in Downtown Nashville. Don't pass up a chance to walk the same street as legends of Music City.
Like many conference tournaments (even the big-time conference tournaments), the OVC has a tough time filling the building for each and every session. The women's tournament is hard-pressed to have fans in seats with the midday session schedule. The men's tournament has the greatest opportunity for a large turnout in the primetime session, but the combination of geography and small fan bases in the early-round games can limit the ability to fill seats.
However, the men's semi-final games take place on a Friday night, and the 2014 edition of the tournament included teams that can hold serve dealing with geography (Belmont) and fan base (Murray State).
The OVC has a great fan base, and the fans that make the trip to the Municipal Auditorium are loud and get your attention. For an Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State, Jacksonville State and Eastern Illinois, the distance to drive to the tournament coupled with the cost of a hotel for a long weekend keeps those fans from making the trip more times than not.
This rating is as high as I will give when a facility isn't packed to the gills or at least close to reaching capacity. With that being said, I give this group of fans two exclamation points to follow the three stars to show my respect for those loud folks in their school colors that add that next level of excitement to each game.
It's not extremely difficult to get to Municipal Auditorium. The problem is finding where to put your car when you get there. Yes, there are a couple of parking garages close-by, but I paid $20 to park inside a parking garage a block from Municipal on Charlotte Ave. That seems a bit steep, even with the proximity to the venue and the fact that the price includes the entire day.
Getting around once inside is relatively easy. The concourses are big enough to maneuver and bathrooms are easily accessible. The aesthetics to both leave a little to be desired, but as a good realtor would tell you when trying to sell an older home, that's just part of the "charm."
$80 All-Session Pass -- Includes 14 games of the tourney (Men's and Women's)
$30 Single Session (Men) -- A session is two games at night, with the first game beginning in the 6:00 hour and the second game tipping off around the 8:00 hour.
$15 Single Session (Women) -- A session is two games in the afternoon, with the first game beginning at noon and the second game tipping off in the 2:00 hour.
There are no real extras. The tournament is the main attraction.
Memories of Municipal Auditorium seem to become more nostalgic and much less realistic with age. To give you an idea of what I mean, read this retrospective I wrote regarding WWF (WWE now) at Municipal in the 1980s.
The place was magical back then. Returning there in 2014 awakens memories of years past, but having since visited venues like LP Field, Bridgestone Arena and that airport/mall/city/Vatican thing with a football field stuck in the middle of it, AKA AT&T Stadium, the magic has been replaced with that feeling you have every time you revisit your old grammar school. It's much smaller than you remember and the smells aren't pungent, but it's not exactly Kirkland's.
Don't get me wrong. I have permission to say these things about MY Nashville Municipal Auditorium, but don't let me hear one negative word slip from your tongue about this Nashville antique that is full of so much character and charm you just want to pinch its cheeks.
Nashville is a better place with a venue like Bridgestone Arena, but Municipal -- like that grammar school -- is a great place to go back and visit so you can sit in your old seat and wallow in nostalgia. You don't miss it being your only option, but you'd chain yourself to the door at the mention of knocking it down for "something better."
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