CLEVELAND – In a nationally-televised nail-biting instant classic between the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats and the sentimental favorites in the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Saturday night, the city of Cleveland emerged the biggest winner.
With celebrities in attendance such as LeBron James, Golden Globe-nominated actress and Kentucky Wildcats uber-fan Ashley Judd sprinkled through Quicken Loans Arena—or the Q, to the locals—Cleveland proved to be the place to be, as it was the center of the proverbial sports universe.
Other notables on hand were former Notre Dame standout and current color commentator Austin Carr, former Kentucky alum in Nerlens Noel and his current teammate for the Philadelphia 76ers in Joel Embiid and Jerami Grant—brother of Irish point guard, Jerian, Republican governor of New Jersey Chris Christie and second-year Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine.
And they were treated to perhaps the most-watched college hoops game since Duke vs. Kentucky in 1992.
With a opportunity to witness Notre Dame slay another Goliath and add the Wildcats pelt to their upset trophy case—as well as stick it to the big bad SEC and their glorified D-League team stack full of lottery picks–fans of the Fighting Irish and anti-SEC/Kentucky fans were on the cusp of getting their wish of seeing the loud and vocal members of Big Blue Nation slither back home to Lexington with their tails between their legs and a “1” in the loss column.
While Kentucky would discover their clutch gene late in outscoring the Irish down the stretch and make their free throws late, 20,561 die-hards got to see the tough luck sports town of Cleveland in the best and brightest light.
While it would take forever to talk of the many near-misses, disappointments and sorry to mediocre play of the local sports teams, thanks to hosting Wichita State, Kentucky, Notre Dame and West Virginia, Cleveland area businesses were able to reportedly cash in to the tune of $15-20 million.
While Kentucky vs. West Virginia proved to be an exercise and futility for the Moutaineers and the much hyped point guard match-up between Fred VanVleet and Jerian Grant, didn’t quite live up to the billing, Notre Dame vs. Kentucky proved to be all that—and then some.
Dab smack in the heart of B1G country, none the less.
While Cleveland itself is home to a large legion of Ohio State fans—and would never cheer for anything from the SEC, Kentucky’s well-known legion of hoops-crazed fans could be seen all across downtown in popular watering holes such as the Corner Alley all weekend.
Due to it’s large Catholic population and number of parochial schools, fans and alumni base, Notre Dame also had a large showing, thanks to the various specks of green and gold that could be seen throughout the city and at the Q.
With both Irish and Wildcat fans spending their money in retail shops and sleeping ion it’s hotels, Cleveland cashed in rather well.
For a city that often been the easy—and unfair—target of outside media of jokes and cultural negativity for it’s burning river and long-suffering sports teams, with an exciting regional final to now add to it’s new up-and-coming image of a town to visit.
While the underdog Fighting Irish may have fallen just short against the big and bad Wildcats, for once Cleveland was the center of something positive.