By Dave Wischnowsky–
Indianapolis is a great basketball town.
I’ve been there for the first round of the NCAA Tournament (2005 at the RCA Dome). I’ve been there for the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament (2008 at Conseco Fieldhouse). And I’ve been there for the championship game of the NCAA Final Four (2010 at Lucas Oil Stadium).
I’ve had fun each time. And with its fan-friendly downtown, a bevy of bars within a three-pointer of Conseco and a hoops-happy populace, Indy deserves to host the Big Ten Tournament.
But Chicago does, too.
And once the Big Ten’s current contract to hold the tourney in Indianapolis expires after the 2012 event, the league needs to bring it back to Chicago and start alternating the tournament between the two cities once again.
That’s the way it used to be, of course. After the first four Big Ten Tournaments were held at the United Center, the conference began rotating the event between the Windy City and Indy. It worked well. But then in 2007, the league opted to award Indianapolis with a five-year pact to be the sole host of the event, and ever since the crowds have been less than stellar.
In 2009, the average attendance per session at the BTT dropped to a paltry 13,620 (an all-time low). Last year, it rebounded to 16,135. We’ll see how the numbers turn out this year, but the crowds didn’t look, well, particularly crowded at Conseco during Thursday’s quarterfinals games.
No matter what numbers Indy attracts this year, though, it will rank far behind the 21,954 average that the United Center reeled in during the 2005 tourney, when Illinois was ranked No. 1 in the nation. In its 14 years of existence, the top five tournaments attendance-wise have all been held in Chicago.
Now, I’m quite certain that the main reason why the Big Ten moved the event strictly to Indy was because most conference coaches felt that the Fighting Illini enjoyed too great a home-court advantage at the United Center. And to be fair to them, Illinois is 23-11 in the Big Ten Tournament since the event began in 1998. No other school has won more than 14 games. That is a definite edge.
But that hardly means that Chicago should lose the tournament completely. Nor does it mean it’s wise for the Big Ten to strip its marquee postseason event (until the Big Ten football game kicks off this December) from the biggest city within the conference’s footprint. There are an estimated 300,000 Big Ten alumni living within the Chicago area, and that’s a lot of potential ticket buyers who don’t have to make a long drive down I-65 … in this economy … with these gas prices.
“I would love it at the United Center,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said this week, stumping for Chicago. “The vote (by coaches to move the event to Indianapolis) was 10-1 and I voted. At the same time Indianapolis is a great venue. Everyone knows it. It’s a great environment and Conseco is a nice place to play.
“But for us to play at the United Center was special. And the one factor I don’t think anyone considered is that there are so many alumni from all the schools living in Chicago.”
Exactly. Like I said, Indianapolis is a great basketball town.
But Chicago is a great city.
And it deserves to the get the Big Ten Tournament back.
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com.