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Sports Business

IU's early departure deflates Big Ten tourney attendance

March 14, 2016
KEYWORDS Sports Business

Indiana University’s early departure from the men’s Big Ten Conference basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse probably decreased attendance by more than 2,000.

The per-session average of 16,722 was down from the tournament's previous five years. IU’s disappointing showing gets most of the credit for that swoon.

This year’s tournament scored record total attendance—when it has been held in Indianapolis—of 117,051, thanks largely to the expanded conference and an extra, seventh session. The conference added the seventh session in 2015, when the tournament was in Chicago. 

Despite the per-session decline, Visit Indy Vice President Chris Gahl called the event "a big success for central Indiana." Downtown businesses reaped the lion's share of the fiscal prizes.

"Three weeks before the tournament tipped off, our downtown hotels were sold out for Thursday, Friday and Saturday the week of the event," Gahl said. "That caused considerable compression to suburban hotels. Based on what we're hearing from hotel operators on their occupancy and from bars and restaurants, we feel like it was an extremely healthy event for us."

No doubt, though, it could have been healthier.

The championship game pitting Michigan State against Purdue drew 16,429 fans. That total would have likely been at least 18,400 (a standing-room only crowd) had No. 1-seeded IU made it to the title game. But if it had not been for Purdue, that number could have been even lower.

IU flamed out to Michigan on Friday. Michigan was dispatched by Purdue in the semifinal on Saturday.

Saturday’s semifinal round scored the second-highest attendance of any session, bringing in 18,339. Michigan State beat Maryland in the other semifinal game. Purdue and Michigan State appeared to have the biggest fan following at the fieldhouse on Saturday.

Had IU and Purdue played in the semifinal, the fieldhouse likely would have squeezed in another hundred or more people for the game. IU and Purdue only met once this year and a rematch was highly anticipated. Ticket prices for the semifinal session on the secondary market plummeted after IU's loss.

The best-attended session for this year’s tournament was the early Friday session featuring IU-Michigan followed by Purdue-Illinois. That session drew 18,355.

This year’s attendance, while better than the 111,592 the event drew when it was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in 2014, was below the 118,496 the tournament drew to Chicago’s United Center last year.

This year’s per-session average was significantly below what it was the last time the event was here. In 2014 the per-session average was a Bankers Life Fieldhouse record 18,599, and last year in Chicago it was 16,928.

The tournament’s per-session average hasn’t been as low as it was this year since 2010, when it was 16,315—and that was for only five sessions. The tournament was in Indianapolis that year.

The Midwest loses its stronghold on the tournament starting next year, when the five-day event will be in the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. In 2018, the tournament will be in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The move is part of the Big Ten’s strategy to get East Coast exposure.

Big Ten officials are confident those venues will draw many Big Ten alums who live on the East Coast, in addition to attracting fans from the Midwest. But some observers think attendance could falter once the tournament is outside the region where most of the universities are based.

Either way, the central Indiana economy will take a hit.

The Big Ten men’s and women’s basketball tournaments—both held at Bankers Life Fieldhouse—had a combined $18 million economic impact on Indianapolis this year, conference officials estimated. That's only a couple of million dollars short of what the NCAA women's Final Four will drop on Indy in three weeks.

Gahl called the estimate for the Big Ten tournaments "conservative."

"The estimate for the men's tournament alone was $13.4 million, and I wouldn't be surprised that once we got our final numbers in if that number was more than $15 million," Gahl said.

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