By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) In 2006, when Indianapolis beat out Chicago for exclusive rights to host the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament from 2008-12, conference commissioner Jim Delany expressed his hope that a fixed location would help boost attendance for his league’s hoops extravaganza.
“We’d like to have all sessions sold out all the time,” Delany told the Chicago Tribune at the time.
Well, that’s finally happened – but in Chicago, not in Indy.
On Thursday, the Big Ten announced that for the first time in the conference tournament’s 16-year history, its four-day event – scheduled for March 14-17 at the United Center – has sold out in advance. The original batch of tickets, which went on sale in October, was gobbled up by the end of January. A limited number of additional tickets went on sale on Feb. 1 and they’re now all gone, too.
This year marks the tournament’s first appearance in Chicago since 2007, and I think the ticket sales prove that the Big Ten should continue bringing it back. Keeping it strictly in Indianapolis just doesn’t make sense.
And, hey, I like Indy. I really do. It offers a compact downtown. It has convenient hotels. And Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium are within easy walking distance from both. It serves as a strong host for both the Big Ten basketball tournament and football championship game and I think Indianapolis deserves to keep having both come to town.
But not exclusively.
Because, it is absolute folly for the Big Ten to not better embrace what’s still the largest city – and biggest concentration of alums – within its ever-expanding footprint. And that, of course, is Chicago.
Last year, the Big Ten Tournament actually did set an attendance record for Indianapolis by drawing a total of 107,737 fans, although that number is misleading. That’s because with Nebraska giving the Big Ten 12 teams for the first time, the tourney was expanded from five sessions to six.
That extra session accounts for the enormous bump in attendance from the 86,767 fans that attended in 2011. And according to the Indianapolis Business Journal, if you take away the 17,125 fans from the sixth session – the title game – the 2012 five-session total was 90,612.
The previous Big Ten Tourney attendance record for Indy was 94,402 in 2002, so 2012 really wasn’t any banner year. Meanwhile, Crain’s Chicago reported this week that attendance for all six sessions at the United Center next month may challenge the arena’s tournament record of 109,769 (an average of 21,954 attendees per session) that was set in 2001. During last year’s tourney, the per-session attendance average was just 17,956 at Bankers Life, which has a capacity of 18,165.
The Big Ten Tournament is indeed a numbers game, and the fact is that Chicago simply has bigger digits to work with. The Chicagoland metro area boasts 9.4 million people, including more than 300,000 Big Ten alumni. The Indianapolis metro area, on the other hand, has a population of only 1.7 million and a relatively small number of alums from schools other than Indiana and Purdue.
That’s an enormous difference in the number of potential ticket buyers – from all Big Ten schools – that the league can dip into during a tournament in Chicago. And it makes the tournament less reliant on the success of one team. For example, if Indiana makes the title game in Indy, the place is packed. But if the Hoosiers don’t? Well, there are probably empty seats.
In Chicago, however, even if the biggest local school – Illinois – doesn’t reach Sunday’s championship game, the odds are that there will still be a huge crowd because of the huge number of Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and other alumni living in or near the city.
Now, to be sure, the high demand for this year’s tournament is in large part a result of the strength of the Big Ten, which currently boasts three Top 10 teams and five in the Top 20. And with Indiana currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, ticket sales no doubt would have been higher in Indy this year, too. But it still wouldn’t have drawn as well as Chicago will.
“Obviously, the Big Ten tournament started in Chicago; it’s always great to be in Chicago,” Big Ten assistant commissioner Scott Chipman told the Champaign News-Gazette earlier this year. “We love Indianapolis, we love Chicago; two great facilities, two great fan bases. It’s great to be back in Chicago. We’re looking forward to the event.”
And I’m looking forward to it coming back every other year.
So make it happen, Big Ten. It only makes sense.
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. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.