Will February Fervor translate to March Madness in Maine?

That’s the gamble the America East Conference is taking. It formally announced Thursday that it is bringing its women’s basketball tournament to Portland in 2017 and ’18.

The nine-member league, which includes UMaine, has been staging postseason games on campus sites but is moving to Cross Insurance Arena in search of bigger crowds.

“If the community is here that just loves basketball, that will come out and watch whatever teams are playing, even if it’s not Maine, then I think that’s ultimately the critical ingredient for success,” Commissioner Amy Huchthausen said Thursday at the arena.

“Attendance is important, there’s no question. It’s a championship and you don’t want your teams playing in front of 50 people, or less than they do during the regular season.”

The conference has rotated its tournament among its campuses in two-year cycles, with Binghamton getting the bid for 2015 and ’16. Attendance at the arena in Vestal, New York, averaged just 544 fans for three sessions in March, when Maine ousted the host school in the first game.

The tournament format involves eight teams playing four quarterfinal games on the first Saturday in March, with the winners squaring off in semifinals Sunday.

The championship game, in which the winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, is held at the on-campus arena of the highest remaining seed the following Friday, televised by ESPNU.

Maine last hosted the tournament in 1998 at Alfond Arena in Orono, setting a record for the event by drawing 13,624 fans. It was that support, plus the fanfare that surrounds the high school tournaments in Maine each February, that appealed to America East, Huchthausen said. There’s a chance that Portland could become the permanent home for the six games.

“We’ll take a look after the first year to see how things are going,” she said. “But if it goes well and we’re able to draw fans and this community really comes out, then I see no reason why we would change it.”

The deal was unanimously approved by the conference’s athletic directors at a meeting in October, said Maine’s Karlton Creech. He said he was caught by surprise when Shamrock Entertainment, the Portland-based sports marketing agency that includes America East among its clients, made the formal proposal at that meeting. Creech had planned on bidding to host the event at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

But Portland is the next-best site for his university, Creech said. The school has attempted to make inroads among fans down here in recent years anyway, staging hockey and men’s basketball games in the city each winter.

“I think attracting a premier college event to the state of Maine is awesome,” Creech said. “Everybody bought into it.”

Shamrock is assuming the financial risk for the venture, said Brian Corcoran, the founder and president of the 5-year-old company. It is partnering with the Maine Sports Commission and hopes corporate sponsors will help assure the viability of the tournament, which will include an outdoor fan festival aimed at families, and a series of educational symposiums with the theme “She Rules” geared toward school-age girls.

Corcoran declined to reveal his company’s financial commitment but said selling 1,500 tickets for each of the three sessions should be a break-even point. He hopes to get 2,500 people to pay their way into the 6,800-seat arena.

In addition, he would like to see sponsors provide free tickets to schoolchildren as a way to pump up attendance and energy.

Huchthausen said there are no plans to move the league’s men’s basketball tournament to a neutral site again. Those games were played entirely on campuses last March, with the higher-seeded teams hosting, and the athletic directors were thrilled with the results.

“I think we’re going to stick with that for the men’s side for quite some time. It seems to work well there and the women, they like coming together for the traditional tournament experience,” Huchthausen said. “I think that shows the nuances and differences between the two sports. They both play basketball, they’re both trying to score points, but there are other cultural factors between the two sports that are very different.”