NEWARK, N.J. -- There's a new kid on the block in this year's NCAA tournament, a scrappy underdog looking to compete with the big boys and grab a piece of March Madness for its own.
Welcome to Newark, which as recently as five or six years ago wouldn't -- let's face it, couldn't -- have hosted an event of this magnitude. That was before the completion of the Prudential Center, home to the NHL's New Jersey Devils and, at least until they move to a new building in Brooklyn, the NBA's New Jersey Nets.
Take particular note of those teams' place names, because they also are emblems of a simmering dispute that, while far from hostile, nevertheless sticks in the craw of many New Jerseyans.
Barely a mile from the Prudential Center, in Harrison, N.J., Major League Soccer's New YORK Red Bulls play their home games. Ten miles up the road, the New YORK Jets and New YORK Giants play at New Meadowlands Stadium. When the stadium was awarded the 2014 Super Bowl, headlines screamed, "Greatest city gets greatest sports event" -- probably not a reference to East Rutherford, N.J., where the stadium sits.
That produces no small sense of satisfaction that it will be Newark's name that will appear on television screen crawls and office pool brackets around the country for the next three weeks.
"I've got a Jersey chip on my shoulder like my most Jerseyans," Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who grew up in the suburbs west of Newark, said this week. "We are one of the top 10 most-populous states in the nation, we have a transportation super-structure and an arts, cultural, sports and entertainment hub that would make most states envious, frankly. But we still live in the shadow of New York, which we all know is the capital of the global economy. But the reality is we are a state that should be a lot prouder."
The arena, built by the Devils and the city and nicknamed "The Rock," is the sixth-busiest facility in the country in terms of events and attendance, according to Devils managing partner Jeff Vanderbeek.
Though the majority of the field is whittled down by the time the regional finals roll around, the excitement level tends to rise dramatically, according to Mike Crum, COO of the Charlotte (N.C.) Regional Visitors Authority, who has been involved in hosting NCAA games in the city for more than 20 years.
"In the early rounds, there are more teams but less time," Crum said. "In the later rounds, now you've got momentum, you've got teams that have a real shot at getting to the Final Four and there's a lot of power, a lot of draw, behind that. You're kind of trading mass for excitement."
No discussion of Newark's past or present can ignore the specter of violent crime and the perceptions it continues to foster. A few months before the arena's opening in 2007, the city made national headlines when three college-bound friends were murdered execution-style in a school playground.
When the arena opened, ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose described it as a "beautiful new building" but added, "Don't go outside if you have a wallet or anything else, because the area around the arena is just horrible." He later apologized to Booker for the remarks.
Newark's violent crime rate fell dramatically in 2008 and 2009, but has crept upward in the past two years. Still, the arena district, which includes the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Penn Station rail terminal, has historically had the lowest incidence of crime in the city.
Police director Garry McCarthy said his department will spend about $45,000 in overtime to police the area during games and during a multitude of activities planned for game days and off-days.
"We've had a three-year warm-up for this event policing the arena, so we've got that part," he said. "What we've got to do now is make sure we provide a safe environment because this is going to be national news."
It would probably take a catastrophic event to mar what may be an unprecedented branding opportunity for Newark.
"You're going to get the notoriety that comes with hosting the event, you're going to get the national TV mentions that come along with that," Crum said. "Newark will be on the lips of everybody who follows the tournament the next day ... which is pretty much everybody."