Questions remain about Big Ten tournament’s future in Indy

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.


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