As conference realignment swirls around college athletics, the Horizon League has embraced its position as a basketball-dominant conference. Without football, the League remained strong in its conviction to have basketball as its lead sport.
Basketball’s place as the priority sports is part of the Horizon League’s strategic plan. As a result, the League has developed policies to foster success on the hardwood.
“We’ve got strategies in place to continue to grow in [men’s and women’s basketball] so that we’re not just really competitive in the league, we’re competitive regionally and nationally,” Horizon League Commissioner Julie Roe Lach said. “Frankly I think it’s terrific because there’s not any confusion. There’s real clarity and unity around this notion and priority of basketball.
“You see that when you go to our campuses. You see that with our students on campus, there’s a real affinity for our students to come to those basketball games and rally around those student-athletes.”
The League encourages that type of fan engagement. Instead of playing the entirety of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments at one neutral site, the opening rounds are played on campus at the homes of the higher seeds. Then the semifinals and championship games are held at Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.
This season marks the third and final year of the League’s contract to host the championships there. The semifinals are scheduled for March 7, and both championship games are slated for March 8. In addition to the basketball games, the League will host an esports combine, an International Women’s Day celebration, a fan zone and a fast break zone for students.
The League is currently in discussions with the Coliseum to extend the contract beyond this March.
“The community has really embraced [our tournament], as has our league as a true event that happens in March in Indianapolis to really kick off the March Madness of college basketball since we’re early in that champ week,” Roe Lach said.
The Horizon League also had a major hand in the NCAA men’s basketball Tournament earlier this year. It was one of the six hosts for the multiple facilities as the tournament was played entirely in Indiana. The League was the lead host for the 15 games played at Lucas Oil Stadium, which included the Final Four and the Elite Eight as well as several games the first weekend.
Roe Lach recalled that when the NCAA announced the Tournament would be centrally located there, the different hosts organically started meeting on Zoom even before the NCAA began meeting with them.
“That just speaks to the secret sauce of this city and this state when it comes to hosting events,” she said. “It was how do we make this a seamless event across all six facilities and experiences for our student-athletes that all play in different facilities and for our fans that may move from one facility to another.”
The Horizon League has frequently been a leader for conferences. About six or seven years ago, the League was one of the first conferences to launch a mental health summit for student-athletes and athletics staffers, according to Roe Lach. The summit covered topics from sleeping problems to anxiety and depression.
It planned on hosting another in-person summit focusing on anxiety and depression in 2020 and ultimately held it virtually. It was also held in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the social justice issues coming to light. Roe Lach said the timing of the meeting was so important with all the events that were transpiring around the country and the world.
Furthermore, the Horizon League also formed the #OneHL group, which is an initiative designed to lead change. The League’s website states: “although schools and student-athletes compete against each other, through a commitment to stewardship and respect, and by working together, we can create meaningful and impactful change.”
The group has tackled issues such as social justice, voter participation and the mental toll of the pandemic.
The logo for #OneHL was designed by Tiana Jackson, who is currently a junior on the University of Illinois Chicago women’s basketball team.
The League also hosts John McLendon Day each February during Black History Month. He is celebrated for being the first black head basketball coach at a predominantly white university when he was hired at Cleveland State in 1967. This season McLendon Day will be held on Feb. 11 and 12.
Additionally, the League was the first conference to have conference-wide membership with We Coach, an organization dedicated to keeping women in coaching.
The Horizon League was also one of the first conferences to start a digital network back in 2006, which has given significant exposure to its student-athletes. Each of the 12 member institutions now runs ESPN+ broadcasts.
“We want to be the first in the space when it’s the right place to be for us,” Roe Lach said.