Atlantic City Successfully Welcomes Back MAAC Tournament
On Saturday afternoon, Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall hosted its first college basketball conference tournament final game since 2012. The matchup, between Fairfield and Iona, was a satisfying conclusion for the Mid-American Athletic Conference (MAAC) who had their conference tournament cut short last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Entering Boardwalk Hall on March 13, 2021 was a reflection of the current state of our world which requires everyone to mask up and makes media covering the event, like myself, get temperature checked twice (once upon entering the parking garage, and a second time at a check point before walking along the designated pathway towards my assigned seat).
The fans in attendance were seated at an appropriate distance to comply with social distancing protocols. According to members of security working at Boardwalk Hall on Saturday afternoon, they counted approximately 250 fans in total seated in the 200 level.
While that number does not include members of the media (which I counted to be a total of 20 that included the ESPN TV Broadcast crew on site), the men working security told me that the MAAC officials never disclosed how many people would be in the building at any time. Keep in mind that according to Governor Phil Murphy, sporting events can have up to 10% capacity as long as events are following COVID-19 protocols as laid out by local and state officials working with the arena and the entity hosting the sporting event.
The two security men (who spoke to me on conditions of anonymity) said that Boardwalk Hall could hold up to 4,100 fans and be compliant with the protocols but as we previous reported here that the MAAC made the unilateral decision to contain the attendance to only select "Friends and Family" of the participating schools.
As most sporting events at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, the game had all the familiar elements of a college basketball game hosted in that arena: the organists playing the national anthem, the public address announcer booming over the speakers in the roughly 97% empty arena hall, and thanks to the acoustics of the building, everyone seated above the lower bowl could hear some of the sounds from the court.
The championship game itself was a great contrast of different storylines. The Iona Gaels were coached by Basketball Hall of Famer Rick Pittino, who is returning to coaching college basketball after a controversial exit from the University of Louisville. Iona had won the previous four MAAC Conference Tournament titles under former Head Coach Tim Cluess.
On the other sideline was the Fairfield Stags, coached by Jay Young who is in his second year at the school. Entering the MAAC Conference Tournament, Fairfield had a record of 7-16 and following their unlikely win over Manhattan in the first round, they made a March Madness Cinderella style run with wins over Monmouth and Saint Peter's.
As the championship game played out, despite Fairfield's best efforts and the loud support from their fans, it became clear especially in the second half that they did not have the talent or game plan to defeat the Iona Gaels fundamentally sound defense and their penetrating offense.
The final score of 60-51 is not a true representation of how Iona controlled the majority of the game or the fact that their defense held Fairfield to shoot just 30.2% on field goal shooting (16-53) along with compiling five steals and four blocks. With the win, Rick Pittino now becomes only the third head coach to lead five college basketball programs to the NCAA Tournament, joining Lon Kruger and Tubby Smith on that exclusive list.
As it should be, Boardwalk Hall was the site of many great sporting events over the decades and it was only appropriate for it to be the first building to welcome a sporting event back to the city. There are currently no other sporting events on the Boardwalk Hall schedule before Ocean Resort welcomes the Professional Fighters League to Ovation Hall for the next sporting event in Atlantic City in April.
Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall has been the location for sports history before, and it was once again with the venue being the place that saw the last days of sports in Atlantic City pre-pandemic.
Boardwalk Hall demonstrated they can host an event efficiently under the restrictive COVID-19 protocols laid out by state and local officials while also compliant with the requirements from the MAAC Tournament organizers. From my experience covering the MAAC Tournament, I saw first hand how the people working at Boardwalk Hall did everything necessary to make sure the games happened and everything would work for everyone involved.
There is no reason why with our world progressing each week toward more "normalcy" that we cannot see more sporting events return to Atlantic City and those events can have fans in attendance. These events put people back to work, people who lost financial stability because of these pandemic shutdowns. The people of South Jersey were hit hard on many fronts over the last 12 months; the MAAC Tournament at Boardwalk Hall represents what can be done in South Jersey under numerous restrictions and difficult circumstances.