Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion and Amateur Sports and College Sports and Sports Business

BENNER: Ticket sales are key to keeping Big Ten games

February 27, 2010

The next two weeks could be as much about the off-floor competition for the Big Ten Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments as the on-court competition that takes place during the tournaments.

While the tournaments’ presence in Conseco Fieldhouse is secure through 2012, the Big Ten might entertain bids for subsequent years sometime this spring.

Rest assured that Chicago, with the Big Ten’s headquarters in the suburb of Park Ridge, will aggressively try to use its home-court advantage to pursue the tournaments. Other Big Ten-area cities might also take a look.

Quick history lesson: With the exception of one year, the Big Ten Women’s Tournament has been in Indianapolis since 1994 and in Conseco Fieldhouse since 1999. The men’s tournament, which began in 1998, was played in Chicago’s United Center through 2001, then alternated between the United Center and Conseco Fieldhouse from 2002-2007.

In the spring of 2006, the Big Ten determined it wanted to put the women’s and men’s tournaments in the same city for an extended period. It was a two-horse race: the Windy City and the Indy City.

Former Indiana Sports Corp. Chairman Jack Swarbrick (now the athletics director at the University of Notre Dame) and Conseco Fieldhouse Executive Director Rick Fuson led an inspired Indianapolis bid. It featured a continuation of the festival-style atmosphere that included pep rallies, the renaming of downtown streets for the 11 conference institutions, and the “partner-bar” program that pairs downtown pubs with designated fan bases.

But it also added the post-graduate scholarship awards named in honor of longtime Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke. It featured a job fair for Big Ten students. It since has added a 5-kilometer run-walk.

An important element, the Indy bid also included equal treatment for the women’s tournament, whereas Chicago had planned to move the women’s tournament to a suburban venue. To placate the concerns of the Big Ten women’s coaches, Indianapolis also agreed to remove the “off” Saturday between the quarterfinals and semifinals which, in turn, meant Conseco had to give up the IHSAA Girls State Finals … no small sacrifice.

And since the bottom line is, of course, the bottom line, Pacers Sports & Entertainment and other entities stepped up to provide financial incentives that would compensate for Conseco’s having a smaller seating capacity than the United Center.

It was a creative package that also highlighted Indy’s other advantages over Chicago—namely, the walkability between the fieldhouse and downtown hotels. In Chicago, the United Center is several congested miles from the Loop.

Anyway, Indianapolis was awarded the tournaments: not a seismic upset, but an enormous victory, nonetheless.

Now the challenge is keeping the tournaments here.

Indianapolis has delivered—over-delivered in most respects—on everything it hoped to bring to the Big Ten.

That is except for one area: ticket sales for the men’s tournament, which have been in decline.

In 2006, the men’s tournament drew 90,673, or an average of 18,153 for the five sessions. In 2008, attendance was 80,012, an average of 16,002. Then last year, with the one-two punch of a reeling economy and a last-place Indiana University team, attendance fell to 68,098, or an average of 13,620. And that was with Purdue University’s winning the tournament.

By the way, Purdue fans, it would be great to see you “Boiler Up” for the upcoming tournament. Let me put it another way: If IU had the No. 3-ranked team in the country, you wouldn’t be able to find a ticket. Just sayin’.

There is encouraging news for this year. As of mid-February, advance ticket sales were virtually even with what was sold all of last year, and corporate ticket packages were nearly double what they were in 2009.

I understand the importance of the upcoming and future Final Fours and, undoubtedly, the Super Bowl two years hence. But the Big Ten tournaments, drawing a key regional audience, have a chance to become a long-lasting part of our sports fabric. Here’s hoping the support rebounds as the economy does and the Big Tens remain here well beyond 2012.

Finally, with the conclusion of the championship game of the Big Ten men’s tournament, Associate Commissioner and Supervisor of Basketball Officials Rich Falk will retire. If the name sounds familiar, Falk starred at Northwestern University in the 1960s and later was the men’s basketball coach at his alma mater from 1978-1986 before moving into athletic administration with the Big Ten.

Rich is one of the really good people in college sports. I wish him a fine life away from reviewing game films and fielding calls from unhappy coaches.•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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