I went to the Big Ten Tournament last week. I pretty much had to, since they were playing it just down the street from our offices. And I wanted to hate it.
I ripped the decision to play the tournament here basically as soon as it was announced, along with a lot of other midwestern-based writers. It wasn’t hard to see why.
There are only three Big Ten schools within an easy day’s drive of Washington D.C., and two of them, Penn State and Rutgers, have awful basketball teams. Hotels in D.C are expensive, flying to D.C is expensive, heck, everything here is more expensive than it is in Indy (and honestly, Chicago as well). Plus, with the Big Ten itself not being nearly as good as it’s been over the last few years, the on-court product figured to be worse as well.
Being a Serious Professional Journalist, I have to be fair. And after seeing the event up close, I must admit, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.
Were there lots of empty seats? Sure, especially during the Wednesday games. You could find tickets on Stubhub or the resale markets for under ten bucks for Wednesday and Thursday, and the upper level was nearly completely empty. But, to be fair, those games also mostly stunk.
You could play Ohio State and Rutgers in Columbus, New Jersey, Chicago, D.C, Paris, on a moving battleship, or even the moon, and it wouldn’t be a good basketball game. You can’t fault the conference, or the city, for decreased attendance then.
But later in the tournament? It certainly wasn’t a sell out, but more than enough fans showed up to make the environment plenty loud. Michigan brought a large enough crowd that I had trouble writing due to the noise. Maryland fans showed up in force, and had they extended their tournament stay, the later games could have been even louder.
The conference was prepared for lower attendance. On some level, that wasn’t even the point, as long as minimum crowd level could be established. From holding Big Ten Media Days in D.C, to opening East Coast offices, to nearly every venture that leads the conference out of the midwest, the Big Ten says it’s because they want to “live” in both places, not just visit. So this is about planting seeds.
Did the players hate it? Many of them are from the midwest and probably would have preferred to play a little closer to home, but many weren’t complaining in public. “Being so close to home, I felt like we had a little bit of a fan advantage,” Penn State freshman forward Lamar Stevens said after their win over Nebraska.
Here’s what Purdue guard Spike Albrecht told the Indy Star:
As someone who’s a basketball junkie and grew up loving the game, obviously the (tournaments) in Indy and Chicago are great,” Purdue guard Spike Albrecht said. “But this was a different experience, to be able to play in the nation’s capital and just play in a different venue. I thought it was cool.
There are still clear downsides to playing the games out East. The high travel costs, and times, make it much harder for students to attend the event, and largely, it didn’t appear that they did. Attendance could take an even bigger hit in the future if far Western teams, or schools that don’t have as large DC bases, like a Nebraska, or a Minnesota, or a Purdue, make a deeper run as well. With Michigan and Wisconsin doing well, the league lucked out a little bit.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. The Verizon Center is walkable to lots of attractions in DC, and certainly is located closer to better dining and drinking options than Chicago, which is a bus ride away from the really fun parts of the city. It provides an easier outlet for many young alumni who live on the East Coast.
And doing it once a decade or so? It’s not the end of the world. I don’t love it, but it’s fine.
The more interesting test will come next year, when the Big Ten Tournament heads to New York City. Not only is that an even more expensive trip, but it will also move the Big Ten Tournament up a week, changing the entire conference schedule. Will that be worth the significant logistical challenges?
The tournament should be in Chicago or Indy most of the time, if not nearly all of the time, and I say that as a person who personally benefits from this move. Not all of the basketball games, themselves, were great (uh, especially that Ohio State game).
But I wouldn’t let a few (hundred) empty seats in the earlier part of the tournament define the event. The city probably deserves a second chance.