ST. LOUIS — He used to see blue; now, he’s feeling it. It’s Arch Madness Weekend, and Jon Sandretti is staring at row after row of empty tables, a palette of lonely chairs and unloved coasters. He’s talking about closing early, instead of trying to figure out a polite way to move the Big Blue Party Bus somewhere else.
"Oh, it’s been a huge difference," said Sandretti, assistant outlets manager at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis, Creighton’s old headquarters at Arch Madness. "We’re taking quite a hit this year on this tournament because they’re not here."
The Bluejays used to own this town, this event, for a weekend. For the last 15 years — longer, really — you couldn’t throw one of those cute little miniature Missouri Valley Conference basketballs without hitting a Creighton fan square in the noggin.
And some fan bases wanted to. Several fan bases, in fact. Jays fans partied harder, partied louder, and won more than the rest of the league — nine MVC tourney titles in all since the event moved to the Gateway City permanently in 1991.
For up-and-coming programs such as Indiana State, Illinois State and Drake, beating Creighton in St. Louis meant something. And not beating the Jays meant an inevitable Sunday of blue cheer, from Ryan Sears to Kyle Korver to Doug McDermott.
"The hotel would fill up whenever Creighton fans and the team and the alumni were fired up," Andretti said. "We’ve got Bradley this year and obviously, they’re already out (after a last-second loss late Thursday night), so most of them are gone already. We used to have a full hotel on the weekend, so yeah, it’s a big difference."
The Sea of Blue is now a wave of Wichita State gold here, a trickle of Missouri State maroon there, a few dots of red from Illinois State or Bradley.
At least 7,000 Creighton fans — and that number might be conservative — turned up to this event last year, many of whom figured it could very well be the end. Which, it turned out, it was. A short while later, the Jays joined the reconfigured, basketball-first Big East, and left all that history — and all those trophies, all those memories — behind.
"It’s so different," Katie Normile, president of the St. Louis Creighton Alumni Advisory Board, said as the MVC’s second set of quarterfinals got under way on Friday night. "Because you’d walk around and it was so crowded and I’d walk in and see these people I haven’t seen in the previous years, and it was just jam-packed with Creighton people.
"And I walk in this year, and it was just — weird. There were no Creighton people. Just a totally different atmosphere."
This is her seventh Arch Madness, and the fifth since she graduated from Creighton in 2006. The favorite moments start to blend together after a while, but the cherry on top was watching the Jays take out Wichita, 68-65, in last year’s Arch Madness title game, the final word on an era of dominance.
Normile has volunteered for the Valley — which is headquartered in St. Louis — in the past, so she decided to come downtown for this race, even with no horse of her own to cheer for.
"It was a fun thing to come down to," said Normile, who noted that she’s one of about 1,500 Creighton alums in greater St. Louis. "Even if the (Jays) are not playing."
For decades, Arch Madness was their homecoming, their reunion, their Mardi Gras, all wrapped up into one. In St. Louis, the Jays were the biggest fish in the barrel. In New York City, site of next week’s Big East tourney, not so much.
"I’m very nervous about the Big East Tournament — I feel like anybody could win that tournament," said Normile, who isn’t heading to the Big Apple. "I felt like every year, we had a good chance of winning the MVC Tournament."
The Jays owned the turnstiles too; of the five best single-game attendance totals for the MVC tourney championship game since ’91, Creighton was involved in four of them, including the top 3. Of the five best-attended semifinal sessions over that same span, the Jays were a part of four.
"We’re going to draw — assuming our good teams continue to win," Elgin told FOXSportsKansasCity.com before the start of Arch Madness. "I think we’re going to have, if not record ticket sales, we’re going to have ticket sales that exceed last year’s."
Which they very well might. The eye test didn’t show that Friday, mind you. While contenders such as Wichita and Indiana State — fans of the Sycamores, the tourney’s No. 2 seed, snapped up about 1,200 tickets, roughly twice their usual allotment — were well-represented throughout the day, there were swaths of empty seats where Jays fans used to reside.
"(Jays fans) filled a lot of hotel rooms, for sure," Elgin said. "But I think the numbers are going to be somewhat comparable (at the end)."
Watch Saturday’s semifinal action from Arch Madness only on FOX Sports Midwest.
But it’s still felt, as Normile said, kind of … weird. Journey-without-Steve-Perry weird. Genesis-without-Phil-Collins weird. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall was asked about the Jays at his first interview session Thursday, if it felt strange not to see his old rival wandering the halls. His reply:
"That didn’t cross my mind, to be honest. (I’m) coming to St. Louis for the third time in a couple months, and I’ve been successful the last two. We beat the Billikens in a great game (on December 1) and I watched my Red Sox win Game 4 (of the World Series over the Cardinals). That’s what I was thinking of."
So, not so much hard feelings as — well, no feelings whatsoever.
"Yeah, we’re not really focused on that," Wichita guard Tekele Cotton said Friday after the second-ranked Shox stomped Evansville, 80-58, in the quarterfinals. "Creighton’s not the one we’re going to have to deal with."
Out of sight, out of mind.
Just not out of drinks.
"(For) my staff, it was one of their favorite weekends of the year," Sandretti said. "It was fun. They were a fun group to have."
Last March was Sandretti’s first exposure with the Big Blue Army at the Arch; he remembers concocting special blue drinks at the Hyatt’s Brewhouse Historical Sports Bar to honor the Jays fans in attendance.
"(And) we put a special price on it and they loved it," Sandretti said. "I think it was just a blue margarita or something. And they kept the bar busy. We used to have to tell them at the end of the night, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to close.’"
Jays fans travel. So does their rep. Sandretti noted that the Creighton’s new headquarters in NYC — the Affinia Manhattan Hotel — called his office recently to ask for tips on drinks and supplies in advance of the Jays’ inaugural Big East appearance.
"We actually pulled out (last year’s) item sales to actually give them an idea of how much (to stock)," Sandretti said. "So there was communication from their end to us to know what to expect from them."
Expect a good time. And a run on margarita mix.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com.