As Big Ten tourney grows, bidding war for event could erupt

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Just about every Big Ten men’s basketball team has struggled at one time or another this year. But as a whole—and financially speaking—the college conference has never been better.

This is the highest attendance total for the Big Ten men's tournament in the nine years that it’s been held in Indianapolis. On Feb. 24, almost three weeks before the tournament's tipoff in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Big Ten officials announced more than 109,000 tickets have been sold. That tops the previous high—in 2012—of 107,737. And it's the earliest in advance the tournament has been sold out.

This year’s tournament attendance spike comes during a season when hometown favorites IU and Purdue have been below par. IU and Purdue have traditionally been attendance drivers in year’s past when the tournament was held locally.

When IU was 1-17 (in the Big Ten) during the 2008-09 season, tournament attendance was a paltry 68,098. The economy also was in the toilet that year. Attendance at the 2004 Big Ten men’s hoops tournament was 77,012 when IU was suffering from Mike Davis fatigue. When IU was hot late in the 2001-02 season, attendance at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis that season surged. It also helped that was the first year the event was held here.

Attendance got a big boost in 2012 when Nebraska joined the conference and another session was added to the tournament. But something else appears to be going on. Last year in Chicago was the first time the tournament sold out in the Windy City.

Rick Boyages, Big Ten associate commissioner for men’s basketball, credits the increased ticket demand to improved television deals the conference has with CBS and ESPN along with the growth of the Big Ten Network, which has given the conference unprecedented exposure.

Boyages also thinks parity within the conference this year has a lot of fans thinking their teams could do well in the tournament.

Either way, it’s good news for Visit Indy and other local hotels, restaurants and other downtown businesses. Visit Indy expects the tournament to pump about $12.4 million in visitor spending into the local economy. The impact has grown more than 25 percent since the tournament first came here in 2002. That influx of cash isn’t likely to diminish in coming years–for whoever is the host city.

The addition of two more teams—Maryland and Rutgers—into the conference next year is only going to push demand for the tournament higher. That’s good news for ticket brokers.

Boyages said for now there's no thought to moving the tournament to bigger venues such as Lucas Oil Stadium. But you can bet Big Ten officials, ever eager to take advantage of an economic opportunity, will keep a close eye on ticket demand.

The growth of the event is also good news for Indianapolis hotels in the years the tournament is here. Fans coming all the way from the East Coast are almost certain to stay a night or two in a hotel.

The growth of the conference also means the tournament is less vulnerable to significant attendance dips when the economy, or hometown favorites such as IU and Purdue, falter.

If there's a downside to the tournament's growth for Indianapolis it's that bidding for the event will get a lot more competitive. It will be a lot tougher for Indy and Chicago to maintain their exclusive grip on the event.

You can bet with new teams joining the conference, new cities, especially those on the East Coast will become interested in hosting this increasingly lucrative tournament. Luckily for Indianapolis, in addition to this year, it already has the event secured for 2016.

Chicago's United Center will host the event in 2015. But after 2016, I wouldn't be surprised to see a bidding war for the tournament erupt.

Below are the years the Big Ten men's basketball tournament have been played in Indianapolis and the total tournament attendance those years.

2002: 94,402

2004: 77,012

2006: 90,763

2008: 80,012

2009: 68,098

2010: 81,625

2011: 86,767

2012: 107,737

2014: 109,000+

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