Questions remain about Big Ten tournament's future in Indy

March 16, 2010
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Some critical questions remain to determine if Indianapolis will continue as long-term host of the men’s Big Ten basketball tournament.

By now, we know that total attendance for this year’s tournament was up 20 percent over last year. But what about ticket revenue?

Knowing the event was under evaluation and possibly going up for bid when the contract with Indianapolis expired after 2012, the Indiana Sports Corp. put a full-court press on ticket sales this year.

Cranking up sales with discounts for a single year is one thing; dialing up those numbers year after year is entirely different.

Still, a 20 percent increase in this economy is commendable.

But while there was an increase in the four-day, 11-team tournament, I doubt there was a bounce in direct visitor spending.

Fans seeking discount tickets are more likely to consume hamburgers instead of steaks, cheap beer instead of fine wine and stay at cheaper hotels.
Second, when you start going for the deep discounts, some of those buys (and freebies) come from locals. And locals often go home and eat or retreat with the kids to McD’s.

There’s another reason I think direct visitor spending was down this year. And this speaks to whether Indianapolis should keep the tournament long-term.

First let me say, that in my opinion, no one hosts and produces a sporting event like Indianapolis. I’m far from alone in that thought.

That’s why it pains me to say that Indianapolis might not be the best home for the Big Ten basketball tournament. Or at least shouldn’t have the exclusive hosting rights.

The Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association will readily produce a figure ($8 million) for direct visitor spending for the Big Ten Tournaments here.

Truth is, visitor spending for an event like the Big Ten tournament can vary wildly from year-to-year based on which teams are playing well heading into the tournament and which teams win during the preliminary rounds.

The tournament location is another big factor.

Visitor spending in Indianapolis for the men’s Big Ten tournament can vary from $5 million to $10 million. There’s a reason for such a wide spread.

First, only fans for the teams that will likely win at least one game will come in large numbers. That means only parents and girlfriends for the four or five other teams will show up for the tourney.

Then there are the more remote teams to Indianapolis; the likes of Minnesota, Penn State and Iowa that simply won’t travel in great numbers due to the distance. That’s magnified in a down economy.

The teams in the Big Ten that travel in the largest numbers are Michigan State, Illinois, Ohio State and Wisconsin. When a team loses in the tournament, those fans usually vacate in about 30 seconds. And they take their cash with them.

Purdue and Indiana fans are always going to show up in relatively strong numbers for the tournament when it’s at Conseco Fieldhouse. Right now, though, IU is simply out of the equation.

No team did more damage to the economic impact this year than Minnesota. Remember, Minnesota is one of those teams that won’t bring a big fan base down here unless the Golden Gophers are a strong contender to win the tournament.

This year, as well as Minnesota did, it was not a strong contender. Those that saw the championship game Sunday saw few fans clad in Minnesota colors. On their march to the title game, the Gophers beat Michigan State and Purdue, and sent two large fan bases packing early.

The best case scenario would have been MSU and OSU in the final, though Illinois and MSU would have been just fine. As many Purdue fans would have come for the game, they wouldn’t have spent as much money in restaurants and hardly any in hotels.

Minnesota making the title game was the worse case scenario. Not only did the Minnesota fans not travel to Indy for the tournament, the Circle City is simply too far away from Minnesota for Golden Gopher fans to make a last minute trip down when the team started to roll.

Indianapolis touts itself for its central location, and that’s been helpful in luring businesses and events here alike. But in terms of the Big Ten region, the conference could do better.

Let me say here, there are only two cities that could truly compete with Indianapolis as a Big Ten tournament host if conference officials are interested in maximizing their own revenue and that of the host town; Chicago and Detroit.

Any college town simply doesn’t have the organizational horsepower to compete, nor do they have the base of residents and alums from other schools needed to fill the seats when needed. Any other metro area in the region is simply too remote.

Chicago is clearly the strongest contender, and may have Indianapolis beat on some criteria.

About 180 miles north of Indy, the Windy City is more attractive to fans from not only Minnesota, but also, Illinois, Iowa and Northwestern. And those last-minute trips suddenly become feasible.

Now, throw the thousands of IU alums living in Chicago, and boatloads of alums from just about every other Big Ten school.

So even when an unexpected team like Minnesota makes the championship, you’ll have butts in seats, and more of those butts will be sitting on a wallet owned by a person who paid full price for a ticket, a hearty steak and an expensive glass of wine or two.

But I’m not sure I’d advocate granting any single city an exclusive deal.

A two- or three-city host rotation might be the best bet. That keeps the local fan base excited when the event returns and spurs them to stay in the game as ticket-buying customers.

That approach could maximize the return on investment for the Big Ten and host cities alike.


  • Anthony,

    I think there are a few holes in your arguement. First, throw Northwestern out as being a factor for Chicago. They fit in the category of one and done or at most two and done and their fan base does not travel. Their fan base does not even travel to Welsh-Ryan Arena.

    Illinois is 20 minutes closer to Indy than Chicago. While Indy is only about 20 minutes further than Chicago from UM and MSU. That time is easily made up by getting stuck in traffic in the region and from having to spend 1/2 an hour or more trying to get from your hotel to the the United Center. Not to mention costing at least 30% more for everything from gas to hotel rooms.

    Then don't forget Indy is 4 hours closer for those rabid OSU fans.

    The only places really closer to Chicago are UW, Minnesota and Iowa. Only UW would travel en masse any given tourney, the other two have the IU issues of having mulitple bad seasons. And with a trip from Minneapolis to the Windy City being 7 hours, that is not going to be a last minute thing.

    Chicagos big plusses are its large population base and larger arena will bring in larger crowds by definition. But put that money aside, I think there would be pressure from the big B10 schools to favor the fan experience of Indy. Cheaper all around, the town goes all out for it, and the whole walkability festive attitude Indy puts on. I think the Universities should take a hard look at more than just attendance. Finally, not sure if it matters, but I wonder how many of the NCAA selectors sneak out to watch a game or two heading into the selection weekend, or may be influenced seeing OSU fans having a pep rally on Ohio State Street, or Purdue fans chanting on Boilermaker Avenue.

    I think Indy is as strong or stronger with its bid. If attendance and the gate receipts are all the B10 is looking at, we may have an issue, but if they are looking out for the total fan experience, there is nowhere in the country that does it better than we do.
  • Agreed!
    The NCAA believes Indy is the perfect city for their headquarters and the final four. I don't know how you could convince yourself there is a better place for the Big 10 than Indianapolis. The proximity of parking, food, mall, and games are immaculate. That is what matters when you are trying to create a positive experience for students and alumni to have at the Big 10 Tournament. I also believe that the Big 10 will purely stay in order to rub more elbows with the NCAA... Who wouldn't?
  • move is good
    I've been to the Big 10 tourney every year, and the crowd downtown was definitely down this year. I think a move would be good to re-energize the tournament. Indianapolis should definitely be in the rotation, but there are other viable markets.
  • Two points
    Concerning the last minute trip for Minnesota fans or Iowa fans should either of these teams be competing after the first game, the airlines ought to jump on board and advertise last minute deals. Perhaps they did. In any case, this should not be an excuse for not attending a game if a fan wanted to.

    Secondly, Chicago is one of three cities in the US where something like the Big Ten Tournament would NOT have a significant impact - the others being LA and NY. Chicago doesn't need the Big Ten and so it would not go all out like Indy. Since I spend significant time in Chicago every week I can attest to the fact that gas, food, and hotels are much more expensive. What could be less than a $1000 weekend trip to Indy for a Badger or Wolverine fan could be twice that in Chicago. This goes without considering the downtown convenience of walking everywhere.
  • Full House Sunday
    I'm not sure the statement that Minnesota beat Purdue hurt the Sunday attendance. Over 81,000 for 5 sessions - 16,300 or so per session. Capacity is 18,345. Pretty sure Thursday was empty. Wasn't there Sunday, but appeared to be full. Does anyone know the attendance by session? Can't find on the web.

    Chicago is not a good choice in this fan's opinion as the arena is not within walking distance of downtown amenities. More expensive than Indy as well.
  • alums
    Good point about the alums. My guess is there's a lot of alums from all B10 schools that live in the Chicago area and that would likely increase attendance even if the final game is Minn and Iowa.
    That said, it's difficult to beat the atmosphere and walkability of the event in Indy.
  • Conseco Fieldhouse news
  • Chicago
    I agree Chicago is the best fit and had way better attendance when it was there, and for the people saying Iowa and Minnesota wouldn't travel anyway I have family that lives in Iowa and they went every year until it was moved to Indy and now you throw in Nebraska its clearly the most central location.

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