Jesse Temple: Big Ten leaving traditional fans behind
MAY 07, 2014 10:40a ET
The announcement of Big Ten basketball tournament expansion was inevitable as soon as Rutgers and Maryland joined the conference. So it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise when the conference officially announced Tuesday it would add to its rotation of postseason tournament venues to include Washington D.C. in addition to Chicago and Indianapolis.
In order to establish a footprint on the East Coast, after all, the Big Ten needed to bring some of its marquee events in that direction. Already, the conference made official the opening of a New York City office and a partnership with the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium for football. And Monday, the Big Ten announced the Dave Gavitt Tipoff Games, a season-opening basketball series between the Big Ten and the Big East starting in the 2015-16 season.
The Big Ten also could very well put New York City's Madison Square Garden or Brooklyn's Barclays Center into the basketball tournament rotation.
"We've come here not to visit, but to live," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Tuesday. "These events will live in the east as well as in the midwest."
But while expanding into new markets creates the potential for growth, it also creates the potential for alienating fan bases at current Big Ten schools, whose teams are being pulled further away, thus making it more difficult to watch games in person.
Consider the distance from each school's basketball arena, first to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and then to the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., which will host the 2017 tournament:
Madison, Wis.: 328 miles; 846 miles
Minneapolis, Minn. 587 miles; 1,106 miles
East Lansing, Mich.: 254 miles; 587 miles
Bloomington, Ind.: 50 miles; 642 miles
Lafayette, Ind.: 69 miles; 659 miles
Ann Arbor, Mich.: 261 miles; 522 miles
Iowa City, Iowa: 362 miles; 909 miles
Lincoln, Neb.: 662 miles; 1,208 miles
University Park, Penn.: 511 miles; 218 miles
Columbus, Ohio: 177 miles; 423 miles
Piscataway, N.J.: 687 miles; 199 miles
College Park, Md.: 590 miles; 9 miles
Evanston, Ill.: 202 miles; 720 miles
Champaign, Ill.: 122 miles; 715 miles
The move to D.C. is a home run for East Coast schools Penn State, Rutgers and especially Maryland, situated nine miles from the Verizon Center. But the venue is farther away for 11 of the 14 schools in the Big Ten. And in most of those instances, the distance is at least twice as far. Rather than seven schools having fan bases within a five-hour drive, there are now only three fan bases within a five-hour drive.
Big Ten basketball has arguably never been more popular. The past two conference tournaments have been sold out, including a conference record of more than 124,000 fans at Chicago's United Center in 2013 and over 111,000 fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse earlier this year, the largest attendance in Indianapolis. Those two venues have rotated hosting the tournament since its inception in 1998.
Nobody is suggesting the move out east will somehow ruin the conference. Life goes on. Games will be played. New people will come to watch. Money will be made.
"I think that change is difficult for people," Delany said. "I think it's important to look forward, but also to look in the rearview mirror to see where you've been and where you want to go."
A closer look in the rearview mirror, however, just may show fans at traditional Big Ten schools being left behind.
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