Opinion: Big Ten Tournament to Washington D.C.? Great for business, bad for fans

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, it should be a great business move, but does everybody win with East Coast tournaments? Not necessarily.

Somewhat buried in the hubbub about the Big Ten entering into a new scheduling agreement with the Big East were rumors that the Big Ten basketball tournament might be taking a break from host cities Chicago and Indianapolis. From Scout.com's Indiana reporter Justin Albers:

It's easy to understand the rationale for this move. Washington D.C. has a great basketball facility, has more Big Ten graduates than any other city outside of Chicago and NYC, and makes travel easier for the Big Ten's two newest members, Maryland and Rutgers (not to mention Penn State). It helps cut travel for national media outlets who are based on the east coast, makes corporate tie-ins easy, and will very likely sell a bunch of tickets and make a bunch of money. Selfishly, since I live in D.C., it makes it even easier for me to attend. So that's nice, I guess.

That doesn't mean there isn't a loser though. Moving the tournament to D.C. is going to price more basketball fans out of going.

The United Center might not be the favorite place to go for media members, and the bar scene right next to the stadium leaves a little to be desired, but new additions aside, the capital of the Big Ten is in Chicago. Prior to the Big Ten adding Maryland and Rutgers, Chicago boasted more B1G alumni than any other city, and according to data from LinkedIn, it still has more than 30K more alumni in the metro area, even with Rutgers adding over 100K to metro NYC. There is a reason the Big Ten headquarters are just outside the city, after all.

It's also the most accessible metro area for Big Ten fans overall. Eight Big Ten college towns are roughly four hours away by car (Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan and Indiana), and Milwaukee, a city with a strong B1G presence, is only about an hour away as well. Some of those fans could even conceivably drive in, watch their team, and drive back to campus, all without paying for a hotel. When you add in how easy it is to fly into the city, and that you're only an El ride away from one of the best eating and drinking towns in the US, and it's easy to see why keeping the Windy City in the regular postseason hosting rotation makes sense.

Indianapolis doesn't boast the varied Big Ten alumni base that Chicago has, nor the culinary tradition (sup, Applebees?), but that doesn't mean it is without advantages for the fan. Indy is drivable to almost as many places as Chicago, especially for programs with huge fan bases and teams that are good enough to likely compete deep into the tournament, like Indiana, Ohio State, and the Michigans. Indianapolis has an excellent arena, nightlife options an easy walk from the stadium, and most importantly, it's super cheap.

Per data collected from Marriott International and Hilton Worldwide, the average hotel room in Indianapolis was only $113. Compare that to $192 for Chicago, $245 for Washington D.C., and $313 for NYC. This D.C. Business Journal article, from 2012, shows the average price for a hotel room in D.C. as a little lower, but still over $200.

Hotels in D.C. and Chicago may be comparable, but Chicago at least boosts the advantage of being within driving distance of most fans. D.C. isn't. Only Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers are within a six hour drive of D.C. (Ohio State if you're a bit of a lead foot), and as BT Powerhouse pointed out yesterday, Nebraska is about as close to D.C. as it is to Las Vegas. Penn State and Rutgers also project to be near the bottom of the conference for the forceable future, so any geographic bonus you get by being close to those schools is nullified when both schools are eliminated by Thursday.

There is also something to be said for the fact that the two new East Coast metros (D.C. and NY) are unabashedly pro sports towns, with a lot of other things going on. In Indianapolis, the flagship event of the Big Ten is going to get huge coverage and attention, not just from the local sportswriters, but from the community itself. Almost certainly, the Big Ten Tournament will be the biggest thing going on in Indianapolis that day. In D.C., even with the Big Ten as one of the nation's elite basketball conferences, it may not crack the top five. If Maryland struggles, it's easy to see how the event may lack for local oxygen and attention, compared to what the event would enjoy in the Midwest.

Again, from a financial perspective, playing in D.C., or even in NYC, makes sense. As a move to help integrate Maryland and Rutgers, it makes sense. But it is important to remember that while most Big Ten athletics fans are savvy enough to understand the reasonings behind the league's eastward expansion, they remain deeply skeptical of the moves. That feeling isn't likely to dissipate if Maryland and Rutgers struggle to compete right out of the gate, since a typical fan doesn't directly see the benefits of new markets, brands, or revenue streams. Moving the flagship postseason event farther away, thus potentially pricing out more fans and potentially diminishing the live experience, won't help that cause at all.

If the league does indeed decide to move the tournament to D.C. or NYC, let's hope that the stay is a short one.

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