If you live in the Midwest and were planning to drive to this week’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament, you better set aside some extra gas money.
The event will not take place in Chicago or Indianapolis, the only host cities since its creation in 1998. It will go down in America’s most harmonious town — Washington, D.C.
A recent “scientific” poll of eight of my friends, all sports fans, revealed that not one knew Washington would play host. The most interesting guess I got: “Newark?”
The Big Ten made the announcement back in 2014, with officials citing their desire to bind the conference’s two regions.
Commissioner Jim Delany loves that East Coast buzz so much that next year’s event will be staged at Madison Square Garden, one week earlier than customary. (The Big East retains the primo weekend.)
So the 18-game Big Ten slate will get condensed, and teams that make the NCAA Tournament could have a two-week gap between games.
“We all understand how cool it will be to get into New York and play in that building,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “But we’re all wondering: How do we manage with the more congested schedule?”
Back to this year’s event. Maryland gets to play less than 10 miles from its campus at the home arena of Georgetown and the Washington Wizards. The Verizon Center (20,356 capacity) is a decent, modern-enough venue that’s located in Washington’sChinatown, so at least you won’t go hungry trying to find it.
Behind closed doors, Big Ten coaches view this foray with some skepticism. They wonder, like all of us, whether people will show up.
The Big Ten, which declined to offer an update on ticket sales, says the Washington/Baltimore area contains about 320,000 Big Ten alumni.
That’s good, but this year might be a particularly tough sell. The conference has only one national player of the year candidate in Purdue’sCaleb Swanigan, the Terrapins have been slumping and the two other schools within driving distance, Penn State and Rutgers, could get wiped out Wednesday.
Last year’s games in Indy drew an average of 16,722 fans, down from an every-session sellout (18,596) in 2014.
The United Center was packed in 2013 (20,757 average) but less so in 2015 (16,928).
“I know there are East Coast fans who enjoy going to Chicago,” said Rick Boyages, a Big Ten associate commissioner, “and it’s more than fair to think a lot of our Midwest fans would love to get to Manhattan or D.C. for a few days.”
Purdue will be the No. 1 seed, and coach Matt Painter doesn’t know what kind of following to expect.
”Chicago is the best place in terms of alumni, and Indianapolis is easily the most fan-friendly,” he said. “But downtown at the Verizon Center, it will be a neat environment. You can’t say, ‘This is the way it’s always been and that makes it right.’ A lot of people in business are stuck with that mindset.
“We are growing, we are adding, and being able to play the tournament there, trying to expand our brand to the East Coast, there is nothing wrong with that.”
Collins agreed, saying, “I understand the importance of branching out.”
And this is hardly a permanent thing. The tournament returns to Chicago in 2019 and 2021 and to Indy in 2020 and 2022.
“There’s nothing to say we can’t go to Columbus or Cleveland or Minneapolis or Detroit,” Boyages said. “(Moving around) lends itself to parity.
“Do Indiana and Purdue have an advantage in Indy? Do Northwestern and Illinois in Chicago? Why shouldn’t Maryland or Penn State or Rutgers have it in their region? The coaches have not fought it at all.”
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