Playing basketball tourney on East Coast presents big challenge for Big Ten, again

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The Big Ten Conference men’s basketball tournament kicks off today and, once again, the games will be played on the East Coast—this time in New York City.

Last year, the conference tournament made its inaugural visit to Washington, D.C., where turnout in the nation’s capital was tepid, to say the least. Attendance was down more than 20 percent from 2016, when the tournament was held in Indianapolis.

So, will interest in Big Ten basketball be any different in the Big Apple? Doubtful, says Dan Dakich, a former Indiana University basketball player and coach who now hosts a local sports-talk show on WFNI-AM 1070.

“I would expect in the New York area, there would be a big-time attendance problem,” he said. “I would think there would be, for most of the games, a ton of empty seats.”

Then why play the games there at all? Thank the Big Ten’s decision to bring Maryland and Rutgers into the conference in 2014 to expand its borders well beyond its Midwestern roots.

New York City is a huge market, and the additional exposure can’t hurt. But the decision to take the tournament to the East Coast is simply driven by the almighty dollar, said David Morton, a local sports marketer.

“There’s only one reason why they’re going to Madison Square Garden, and it’s money,” he said. “When they added Rutgers and Maryland, the Big Ten became relevant on the East Coast.”

The Maryland Terrapins finished the season at a respectable 19-12 (8-10 in the conference). But the Rutgers Scarlet Knights have largely been a doormat since entering the Big Ten. Overall, the team finished 13-18 (3-15) in the conference and have just nine conference wins since joining the Big Ten four years ago.

The atmosphere at college basketball is typically dictated by the students, who bring a sense of rowdiness to the games. Without them, the environment can quickly become pretty sterile.

“You really can’t get students there,” Dakich said of the trek to New York City. “The truth of the matter is, when you go to a college basketball game, the thing that energizes the game is the students. You’re not going to have the craziness that students will bring.”

Dakich, who calls college basketball games for ESPN, will be in attendance to watch his son Andrew, who plays for the Ohio State University Buckeyes.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said last year that the long-term payoff in exposure is well worth any short-term decline in attendance.

“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 Big Ten Network is televising earlier games. Expanding conference viewership to the East Coast certainly has been a boon for the universities, Morton said.

“I don’t think locals care,” he said. “Do they care about Ohio State? No. But that’s OK, conferences make their money on TV.”

Morton, though, is betting the secondary market for tickets will be “pretty bleak.”

To add insult to injury, the Big Ten is playing its conference tournament a week earlier than usual. That’s because the Big East conference has dibs on Madison Square Garden on March 7-10.

One interesting footnote to the Big Ten tourney: IU on Thursday plays the winner of today’s Rutgers-Minnesota matchup. If the Hoosiers win that game, they’ll take on the rival Purdue Boilermakers Friday evening.

CBS Sports will broadcast the championship game at 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

The tournament heads to Chicago next year and in 2020 to Indianapolis, where attendance hit 117,051 in 2016 compared with 92,964 last year at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

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