By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) This, my friends, is not your father’s Big Ten.
“We’re thrilled to announce plans to host the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament in Washington, D.C.,” conference commissioner Jim Delany said Tuesday at a press conference in the nation’s capital, during which he unveiled a major geographical shift for his Midwestern-based league.
“We have a great amount of respect for basketball in this region of the country,” Delany went on to explain, “and are pleased that we were able to place this tournament at the Verizon Center at this first possible opportunity in March 2017.”
But are traditional Big Ten fans also pleased with the shake-up? And do they have the right to feel that by holding the conference’s marquee hoops event on the East Coast that Delany is also disrespecting their region of the country?
Well, Big Ten fans have every right to feel whatever they wish – and I know that many of them were less than thrilled to learn that the conference tournament, which has never been held more than a 2 1/2-hour drive from Champaign – will in two years be staged 11 hours due east.
However, I also don’t think that fans should overreact to the Big Ten giving its basketball tournament an East Coast tryout. After all, with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the conference roster on July 1, it only makes sense.
That is, it does as long as the Big Ten is sensible about it.
Come 2017, the Big Ten will hold the 20th installment of its men’s basketball tournament, with the league having so far taken nine trips to Indianapolis and eight to Chicago, with the next two tournaments set to be held in those cities.
Relocating the event to the East Coast is clearly a major departure – both figuratively and literally – for the conference, but Delany justified it on Tuesday by telling SI.com: “We don’t just want to visit here, we want to live here. This was our first opportunity to do that. We think it’s a wonderful opportunity for not just Maryland, but for expatriate Big Ten fans living on the East Coast to see great basketball in March.”
And the reality is, it makes zero sense for the Big Ten to add Maryland and Rutgers if it doesn’t also make a serious attempt to embrace Maryland and Rutgers – as well as all those East Coast eyeballs from D.C. up through New Jersey and into the heart of Manhattan.
If there’s any chance of getting East Coasters legitimately excited about Big Ten, then the Big Ten is first going to first need to bring itself to them. Really, it’s not unlike how I’ve long stumped for the University of Illinois to play more games in Chicago, as that’s the most likely way to get Chicagoans interested enough to actually drive down for games in Champaign. And on that topic, Delany this week also announced the new Dave Gavitt Tipoff Games, a season-opening basketball challenge between the Big Ten and Big East beginning in 2015-16 as it seeks to make inroads out East.
Both of these basketball measures smack of savvy marketing. However, I also believe that the Big Ten needs to be smart about how where it holds the Big Ten Tournament in the years to come, not to mention the Big Ten football championship game, which so far has only been held in Indianapolis but could be played in an Eastern venue in the future.
On Tuesday, Delany added that Big Ten fans should expect the basketball tournament to take on a “traveling circus” feel, with multiple cities getting a chance to host.
“My expectation is you’ll see it moving among and between venues in the Midwest and Northeast,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out a pattern. I expect that over the next 10 years you’re going to see us in both regions of the country.”
The establishment of such a pattern, however, shouldn’t even be considered until the Big Ten actually sees the turnout for the 2017 Big Ten Tournament in D.C. Will the Verizon Center enjoy a sizable turnout for all the games, or will it be filled with swaths of empty seats for the matchups not featuring Maryland? Will TV ratings see a boost from interested East Coasters, or will they be the same as when the tournament has been held at the United Center or Bankers Life Fieldhouse?
Delany is a forward thinker, but he shouldn’t forget his roots. It would be unwise to court fans on the East Coast if it means largely abandoning his conference’s biggest alumni population base (Chicago) and its most tourney-friendly city (Indianapolis) in favor of a “traveling circus.”
Because while it’s smart to try to get the East Coast to join that circus, the Big Ten shouldn’t run away with it, too.