Maybe the East Coast market hasn’t yet matured for Big Ten Basketball. Or perhaps people there aren't as willing to spend money to watch Big Ten hoops as those in the Midwest. Or they just don't care.
Either way, the tepid turnout for this year’s men's basketball tournament in Washington, D.C., is a downer, so to speak.
Attendance for this year’s tournament at the 18,277-seat Verizon Center in the nation’s capital was down more than 20 percent from last year, when the tournament was held at the 18,165-seat Banker’s Life Fieldhouse.
Total attendance for this year’s tournament—all seven sessions—was 92,964. That’s down from last year’s 117,051 in Indianapolis. The Big Ten men’s tournament drew 118,496 to Chicago’s United Center in 2015.
Average per session attendance was down from 16,722 last year to an all-time low of 13,281 this year. The previous low was 13,620 in 2009. From that point, it hadn't sunk below 16,315 until this year.
The tournament expanded from five sessions to six in 2012 and to seven in 2015 as the league expanded.
The University of Maryland’s quarterfinal loss on Friday certainly didn’t help this year’s attendance. A Maryland run to the final likely would have added 6,000 or so to the total, although that wouldn't have raised this year's tournament total within striking distance of the 2016 figure.
Sunday’s championship game between the universities of Wisconsin and Michigan drew only 12,902. Last year’s championship featuring Michigan State and Purdue drew 16,429.
Going into this year’s Big Ten tournament, conference officials were confident there would be enough East Coast-based Big Ten alums, plus fans willing to travel from the Midwest, to make a strong showing. The move was part of conference officials’ strategy to gain more East Coast exposure.
Some of the earlier sessions, however, looked awfully empty, with Thursday’s Session 2 establishing a low of 12,189 spectators.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany thinks it’s worth it.
“I think it’s just a strong statement that we’ve expanded,” Delany told the Associated Press on Friday. “It’s different, but I think it’s important to us to express to the people of Maryland and at Rutgers and at Penn State that we truly want to live in two regions.”
Delany thinks the long-term payoff is well worth any short-term decline.
“The media capital of the world is up and down that corridor," Delany said of the East Coast. “So there are a lot of reasons for us to be there. And if you're going to be there, you might as well really be there."
The tournament heads to New York’s Madison Square Garden next year—another interesting attendance test—before returning for a four-year run in the Midwest.
The tournament alternated between Indianapolis and Chicago for its first 19 years, and it’s heading back to that arrangement in 2019. The tournament will be in Chicago in 2019 and 2021 and Indianapolis in 2020 and 2022.
Not surprisingly, more than a few Midwestern fans have voiced their displeasure with the move. Some fans did enthuse that there is more to do in cities like Washington, D.C., and New York than either Indianapolis or Chicago. Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo agrees.
“There are some great, great things to do here. I know my wife's happy,” Izzo told the AP. “]But] getting to practice is a little more difficult because of the traffic here. I mean, God bless you people, I don't know how you do it.”