First Four to put Dayton back in spotlight

Dayton’s reputation as a basketball community will be on full display next week as University of Dayton Arena hosts its first NCAA First Four since 2019.

The event draws tens of thousands of basketball fans to the city each year and spotlights the city to millions of viewers worldwide.

“As a Catholic, Marianist institution, we’re about the community,” said Neil Sullivan, UD’s vice president and director of athletics. “For us, hosting these games and showcasing the Dayton region is bigger than the University of Dayton. It’s about the businesses, it’s about the community, it’s about the hotels, the restaurants and really the brand for the whole world to kind of see what Dayton is capable of.”

UD Arena has hosted the NCAA March Madness tipoff every year since 2001 and the First Four since 2011. While the pandemic “kind of put a wrinkle” in hosting the tournament, the university’s staff is working with the Big Hoopla planning committee to take the event to another level rather than just having sports fans come watch the games and leave, Sullivan said.

“We really try to tie this into something that’s bigger than basketball, something that’s bigger than just the University of Dayton, but it’s really about the entire region,” Sullivan said.



Big Hoopla was formed to organize all activities for the Dayton region in and around the NCAA First Four and the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.

“We’ve got the most passionate fans here in the country, we’re centrally located for a college basketball program, so we’re really at the epicenter of college basketball,” Big Hoopla co-founder J.P. Nauseef. “What a team of volunteers really tried to do in supporting the University of Dayton in those initial First Four games was to create a Final Four experience, except do it around the First Four.”

The difference between the First Four and the Final Four is that the First Four is in the same place every year — Dayton — and the Big Hoopla intends to keep it that way, Nauseef said.

This will be the 10th year for the First Four, which replaced the play-in game or opening round game, in 2011. Dayton has hosted both iterations and is under contract to host the First Four through 2026.

In past years, University of Dayton planned for the First Four the entire year before the event in conjunction with the Big Hoopla Local Organizing Committee and the Dayton Convention & Visitors Bureau, according to Scott DeBolt, UD’s senior associate director of athletics and executive director of UD Arena.

“We’re already starting to plan for 2023,” DeBolt said.

Adding the OHSAA Girls State Championships (March 10-12), and the OHSAA Boys State Championships (March 18-20) and having to switch the court out for each event “just notches it up another level,” he said.

“It’s a pretty big challenge, but we’re up for it,” DeBolt said.

The games have an estimated economic impact of nearly $5 million per year for the Dayton area.

Military honored

The Big Hoopla made a core component of hosting the First Four the recognition of the U.S. military, military families and veterans, recognizing them on the court during games, DeBolt said.

Since it started hosting the event in 2012, the non-profit has donated nearly 100,000 tickets to airmen and their families at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, veterans and local students.

“As these service members come to Dayton for a year or two and then the move on, they have a great impression of what our community is and they actually ask to come back and they want to come back in March so they can come to these events,” said Hoopla Director Sarah Spees. “That is even more apparent this year with the 75th anniversary (of the U.S. Air Force).”



The Big Hoopla plans to generate excitement for this year’s First Four via three events this Sunday: a 2022 Big Hoopla Four Miler, STEM Challenge and Family Festival in the Oregon District.

Those events, as well as ceremonies during the First Four, is Big Hoopla’s way of paying tribute to Wright Patterson, Ohio’s largest single-site employer.

“With what’s going on with Russia and Ukraine right now, I think it shows even more how special of a place Dayton is and for us to be able to honor airmen and their families,” said Jeff Hoagland, former chair and current volunteer of the Big Hoopla and president and CEO of the Dayton Development Coalition. “It’s the least thing that we can do as a community to thank them for everything they’re doing to sacrifice not just their families for our community, but potentially their lives. I think this year it’s even more important that we really appreciate them for everything they do.”

Win free tickets

Starting today, the Big Hoopla plans to hide two golden basketballs somewhere in the Oregon District each day leading up to First Four, Spees said

Those who find them can win a variety of prizes, ranging from tickets to the games to gift certificates to Oregon District establishments to items donated by businesses, including iPads, airpods and other prizes, she said.

Clues to find the basketballs can be found at and

About the Author