Future of Big Ten tourneys in city unclear after 2012

When the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament tips off at Conseco Fieldhouse on Thursday afternoon, Indianapolis still is guaranteed to host the games the next two years.

But it remains uncertain whether the suburban Chicago-based athletic conference will keep the men’s and women’s tournaments in the city after 2012.

The Big Ten is planning to put the tournaments up for bid and have additional cities compete against Indianapolis for the right to host the games.

The Indiana Sports Corp., which led the charge to attract both tournaments to Indianapolis annually starting in 2008, is unsure when the bid process will begin.

“We don’t know the timing on that,” ISC spokesman John Dedman said. “We know that we have it through 2012, but we have not really looked beyond that.”

Big Ten spokesman Scott Chipman also said he is unclear about the timing of the bid process. He referred questions regarding whether the conference is satisfied with Indianapolis as the host city to Big Ten Commissioner James Delany. Delany could not be reached for comment Thursday morning.

What is certain, however, is that ticket sales will play a critical role in whether the tournaments stays in Indianapolis beyond 2012.

Rebounding from last year’s disappointing attendance could provide a lift. A poor economy helped to dampen demand, as attendance for the five sessions fell to 68,098, down from 80,012 in 2008.

Even a strong championship run through tournament by the Purdue Boilermakers wasn’t enough to offset an early exit by the Indiana Hoosiers.

Dedman at the Sports Corp. said demand for tickets typically is higher when both teams advance far into the tournament. Conversely, though, downtown hotels and restaurants benefit more when out-of-town visitors stay longer.

The Boilermakers enter the tournament this year as regular-season conference co-champions along with the Michigan State Spartans and Ohio State Buckeyes. Purdue is ranked No. 6 in the country. The Hoosiers finished next to last in the conference.  

Despite the Hoosiers’ on-court ineptitude, this year’s men’s tournament should be better attended. Dedman said ticket sales have surpassed last year’s numbers, although he couldn’t provide an exact count.

Strong attendance typically translates well for downtown hoteliers and restaurateurs. The Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association estimates the men’s tournament generates about $8 million in direct visitor spending. Combined with the women’s Big Ten Tournament games, the figure grows to $10 million.

ICVA President Don Welsh said he'd love to keep the tournaments in Indianapolis.

“The Big Ten tournaments are important to our overall tourism industry, not just for the hotel rooms and restaurants they fill, but for the significant exposure they garner for our city to a regional audience,” he said via e-mail. “Our goal is that Indianapolis continues to be the home for the Big Ten tournaments for years to come.”

Indianapolis began hosting both tournaments annually in 2008, but the city’s relationship with the Big Ten begins well before that.  

With the exception of one year, the 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 Chicago and Indianapolis from 2002 to 2007.

In 2002, the first year the men’s tournament was in Indianapolis, attendance totaled 94,402. It’s never been that high since. Attendance declined to 77,012 in 2004, before rebounding to 90,763 in 2006.

Whatever the turnstiles read this year, tournament backers hope the Big Ten will take into account the city’s experience hosting the games when it comes time to choose a city.

The tournaments help to transform the city into a basketball bastion, particularly when NCAA tournament games are played here in subsequent weeks. The men’s Final Four will be in Indianapolis April 3-5.

“We’re trying to host the best event that we can, both men’s and women’s,” Dedman said. “That’s the best advantage that we have.”

The men’s tournament on Thursday tips off at 2:30 p.m. with a matchup between the Iowa Hawkeyes and Michigan Wolverines. The Hoosiers and Northwestern Wildcats follow at 4:55 p.m. The Boilermakers will face the winner of the Indiana-Northwestern game at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

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