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Sports Business

Move east angers Big Ten fans, could rob Indy of millions

May 7, 2014

Midwest sports fans who were displeased with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten cringed more than a little when conference officials announced Tuesday that the Big Ten basketball tournament will be held in Washington D.C. in 2017.

It will be the first time since the event was launched in 1998 that it hasn’t been held in Chicago or Indianapolis. The hoops tourney was held in Indianapolis this year, will move to Chicago in 2015 and then back to Indianapolis in 2016 before heading east.

“We don’t just want to visit here, we want to live here,” said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, referring to the East Coast. “This was our first opportunity to do that. We think it’s a wonderful opportunity for not just Maryland, but for expatriate Big Ten fans living on the East Coast to see great basketball in March.”

Some Big Ten fans might be OK with the conference keeping a second house on the East Coast as long as Big Ten officials don’t forget where the collegiate conference was born.

While moving one of the conference’s marquee events to the East Coast may broaden the Big Ten’s exposure, audience and revenue generating potential, it also takes it out of the heart of its historical Midwest territory, and that comes with certain risks.

Unlike Chicago and Indianapolis, D.C. is not an easy one-day drive for most Big Ten schools and fans. In their early years, attendance for the Big Ten’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and football championship was not exactly on a straight growth curve.

At a time when attendance at the men’s basketball tournament is starting to hit high marks in Chicago and Indianapolis, it will be interesting to see what the move to D.C.—and possibly other East Coast venues—does for event attendance.

I wouldn’t expect people from the East Coast not somehow connected to the Big Ten to attend the tournament. And while there are a decent number of Big Ten alums on the East Coast, that number pales in comparison to those in the Midwest. I wouldn’t expect Midwestern Big Ten fans to flock east in big numbers for the basketball tournament—or other Big Ten sporting events.

I’m not sure there’s much upside in the Big Ten’s push East for Indianapolis. I’d be surprised if the schools outside the Big Ten’s historical territory will fill many seats at Big Ten basketball tournaments or the Football Championship game when it is here. We’ve already seen that with Nebraska.

But you never know, maybe a big contingent of Rutgers fans will fill our restaurants and hotels. I suppose the Circle City could gain exposure if more East Coast fans watch events here on television.

Competition to host the Big Ten’s biggest sporting events just got a lot tougher, which means Indianapolis will have to fight harder to stay in the rotation. Also mentioned as potential East Coast sites for the basketball tournament are the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Madison Square Garden in New York.

It’s only a matter of time before Big Ten officials look at East Coast venues for the Big Ten Football Championship, which has been held at Lucas Oil Stadium since it began in 2011. If Big Ten officials like the idea of hosting the basketball tournament in the Verizon Center in D.C., I would imagine FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins, is going to look pretty attractive for a championship football game at some point in the not too distant future.

Those are two big events for Indianapolis to lose out on. This year’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament attendance exceeded 109,000 and brought in about $15 million in visitor spending. The Big Ten football championship also brings in about $15 million in visitor spending for Indianapolis.

“My expectation is you’ll see it moving among and between venues in the Midwest and Northeast,” Delany said of the basketball tournament at a press conference Tuesday. “You’ve got to figure out a pattern. I expect that over the next 10 years you’re going to see us in both regions of the country.”

You didn’t have to look too hard to find a bevy of angry comments from Midwestern Big Ten fans on Internet message boards and social media on Tuesday after Delany’s announcement. Some seem resigned that Delany, himself an East Coast native, was moving the conference in a decidedly new direction.

Those angry fans can’t just blame Delany. Most Big Ten schools, eager to increase their exposure and gain access to East Coast money, have gone along with the plan with few complaints. Most conference sponsors seem to be on board too.

But if the plan alienates the conference’s core fan base, dilutes its brand and/or hurts its biggest championship events, it could backfire horribly.

Tuesday’s announcement about the Big Ten basketball tournament moving to D.C. comes on the heels of Monday’s unveiling of the Gavitt Tipoff Games featuring eight Big Ten and eight Big East teams squaring off in the first week of the basketball season at home sites.

The Big Ten is now eyeball deep in its East Coast immersion plan. Hopefully for the Big Ten—and its partners, they're buoyed by the gains of the plan and not drowned by its losses.

 

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