FRISCO, Texas — Judy MacLeod will be the ring master for a two-ring circus that will have a four-day run here at the Ford Center.
Conference USA will stage its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments concurrently at The Ford Center – the name for the Dallas Cowboys’ indoor practice field, a 12,000-seat venue. On Wednesday and Thursday there will eight games played each day on two courts. The playing surfaces will be separated by a floor-to ceiling sound curtain splitting field level at the 50-yard line.
The decision to do something that hasn’t been done at the Division I level was approved by a C-USA vote last May. But the process started a few months before when MacLeod and her staff decided to visit the new Cowboys headquarters.
“We’re walking through the building and it was going through my mind, ‘What could we do here?’ And I asked have you guys thought about putting a couple of basketball courts in here,” MacLeod recalls saying. “They looked at me like I was a little crazy. I tell my staff when I start thinking crazy, you better slow me down.”
Chad Estis, the executive vice president for the Cowboys business operations, was part of the group representing the Cowboys when the C-USA folks were visiting. The idea of hosting the C-USA tourneys was in Estis’ wheelhouse. He played basketball at Ohio University, helped the Cowboys host the 2014 Final Four and worked in the NBA for 10 years.
“Putting some March Madness in the Ford Center is super exciting for me,” he said. “When we were developing the Ford Center and The Star, I don’t know if I ever envisioned basketball. I give Judy and her folks a lot of credit. We had talked with C-USA about different events, but they had a vision for basketball. When it was suggested we jumped all over it. Our part was easy. Judy and her folks were willing to take the risk.”
The Ford Center is the center of The Star, a 91-acre campus that is home to the Dallas Cowboys’ offices and practice facilities that opened in August 2016. It is surrounded by an entertainment district lined with restaurants and shops, the Omni hotel and a medical center.
Since its opening, The Ford Center has wasted little time hosting dozens of high school regular-season and playoff football games. The Big 12 staged its football media days there last July and will do so again this July. And while AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys’ home stadium, hosted the 2014 Final Four, staging C-USA’s 22 hoops games at The Ford Center is a new frontier.
“We wanted to take advantage of having such a great facility in our backyard and provide our student-athletes with a great and unique experience,” MacLeod said.
Jerry Jones Jr., executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer for the Dallas Cowboys, said, “What we’re doing here at The Star for this tournament will be cutting-edge.”
Seating has been added at court level. Fans in the stands will be able to roam back and forth to watch games on either court. If there is a major concern about the simultaneous games, it’s the sounds of whistles and game horns. Estis and MacLeod are confident that the sound curtain will prevent audio overlap.
“The curtain will do its job,” Estis said.
“One of the main questions we had to answer was the sound issue,” MacLeod said. “Playing two games at the same time, we had to make sure the competitive integrity would be maintained. There are bids to the NCAA Tournament on the line. We talked to multiple sound experts and they all said it would be fine. And of people have reminded us that kids have grown up playing summer ball on courts that are right next to each other.”
C-USA has a long-standing policy of playing its men’s and women’s tournaments at the same time in the same city. Finding hosts with facilities that can do both and that are in the C-USA footprint is not a simple task. Coaches prefer a neutral site and the Ford Center qualifies. C-USA member North Texas is closest to Frisco – 25 miles.
While staging tournaments at basically the same time in the same venue is unique, this is not a publicity stunt. The semifinals and final for both tournaments will be shifted to just one court at The Star. MacLeod, in fact, believes that the unusual set up will be worth whatever risk is involved.
Frisco is proving itself for something other than the nickname for that West Coast city by the bay. It’s an affluent and fast-growing suburb 20 to 40 minutes (depending on traffic) north of downtown Dallas that has coupled its economic development and building boom by billing itself as a sports hub.
- The Texas Rangers’ Double AA team, the Frisco Roughriders, call it home.
- The Dallas Stars has several Dr. Pepper Arenas in Dallas suburbs, including Frisco. The Texas Legends of the NBA’s G-League play their home games there.
- Toyota Stadium is home to FC Dallas of the Major Soccer League. It also has been the location for the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision title game since 2010 and the past season was the debut of the Frisco Bowl, a Football Bowl Subdivision post-season contest.
- Nike’s The Opening Finals, a high-profile event for high school football players, will be held at the Ford Center later this summer. Previously The Opening Finals had been held Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
For the far-flung C-USA, anchoring its basketball tournament in the Dallas area makes a lot of sense. While Birmingham, the previous home of the tournaments the last three seasons, might be more geographically convenient, creating synergy with the Cowboys and Frisco should boost C-USA’s branding and marketing.
“I think our fans obviously will miss Birmingham because of the proximity,” Middle Tennessee State coach Kermit Davis said at C-USA’s media day, which was held at The Star last October, “but how impressed are we as far as Frisco… It’s unbelievable as far restaurants and different areas and I think you’ve just got to have total confidence when you put the Cowboys with Conference USA and how nice this is going to be done. I’m really, really impressed.”
Plus, exposing the conference to the talent-rich Metroplex should help recruiting for the C-USA’s men’s and women’s programs.
“I think we have a chance to make it something pretty special on a neutral court with a destination for fans,” MacLeod said. “We’re giving it a shot. Everybody knows it’s my idea. So, if it doesn’t work, I’ll take all the heat.”