The Big Ten basketball tournament will be played for the 20th time this week, but it won’t celebrate the occasion in one of its two usual bases of Chicago or Indianapolis. Instead of United Center or Bankers Life Fieldhouse — the only arenas that had hosted the tournament — it will be in downtown Washington.
Jim Delany does not expect standing-room-only crowds this week at Verizon Center. What the Big Ten commissioner does expect is to underline a message sent three years ago, when he spearheaded the conference’s additions of Maryland, Rutgers and the major Mid-Atlantic television markets that came with them.
The Big Ten is “not just visiting,” Delany said in an interview last week, returning to a phrase he has repeated at times since expansion. “We’re going to be living here.”
Approximately 250,000 Big Ten alumni live in the Washington area and nearly another 100,000 live in Baltimore, according to Delany — but it remains to be seen how well the conference will tap into those swaths once the tournament starts Wednesday. The Big Ten has not released ticket sale numbers for the tournament.
“I really don’t expect us to have the same experience in D.C.” as in the Big Ten’s traditional tournament venues, Delany said. “I think we’ll have a good experience, but I think it’s a build. I would love to sell it out. But we’re not at a sellout. There are public tickets available.
“I think we’ll have very good crowds. A little bit depends upon who wins and moves on. It’s been a very unique year. I think many, many teams feel like they could win it.”
That so many teams are viable options to win the tournament could make it a difficult product to sell this week. Purdue, behind sophomore center Caleb Swanigan, the Big Ten Player of the Year, is the No. 1 seed and clear-cut favorite. But after that, it’s a mixed bag. The rest of the top four seeds — Wisconsin, Maryland and Minnesota — all have at least six conference losses and slumped for parts of January and February.
After that there are there four teams lumped together with 10-8 league records — Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa and Michigan State. The other two mid-Atlantic-based programs, Rutgers and Penn State, will play in the first round on Wednesday and are expected to be out of the bracket by the weekend.
Ohio State, whose largest alumni base outside of Cleveland is in the Washington area, according to Delany, is the No. 11 seed and isn’t favored to get to the quarterfinal round on Friday, either. Should the Buckeyes make it that far, they would face Maryland, which would have to travel just 15 minutes to play on a floor that it already won on against Georgetown earlier this season.
That proximity, of course, should create a pro-Maryland environment at Verizon Center, especially if the Terrapins advance to the weekend rounds.
“When it’s in the Midwest, if it’s in Chicago and I mean Illinois is in the finals, it’s an orange-fest. If it’s in … Indianapolis, and Purdue and Indiana is in the finals, it’s that way for them. Now the difference is, our fans can get to those places a lot easier,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. “So that’s a benefit for Maryland. But there’s benefits everywhere you play, I do believe. It’s a little more unique since most teams are farther away.”
Maryland has already sold out its allotment of 750 tickets and requested more last week, according to athletic department spokesman Zack Bolno. While Terrapins Coach Mark Turgeon was firm in calling his team’s tournament opener — a quarterfinal on Friday night — a neutral-site game, he admitted that it stands to benefit Terrapins fans, who won’t have to take plane rides or book hotel rooms.
“When we joined the league, Delany talked about it, so he came through. I don’t know how often it’s going to happen, so we got to enjoy it,” Turgeon said.
Next year, the tournament will to Manhattan at Madison Square Garden, closer to the fan base at Rutgers, the other league newcomer. That, too, is a bold move: The Garden’s commitment to the Big East tournament will force the Big Ten to play its tournament a week earlier than other power conferences, compressing the 2017-18 conference schedule.
While Delany has not publicly announced a firm return date for the tournament to the District — after visiting New York, the tournament will rotate between Chicago and Indianapolis from 2019 to 2022 — he expects it to be back.
A combined 1.85 million fans have attended the tournament over its previous 19 years, Delany said, with some tournaments proving more lucrative than others. According to Destination D.C., which serves as the city’s convention, tourism and special events bureau, this week’s tournament is projected to generate more than $33.3 million in direct spending in the District, with taxes back to the city expected to hit $5.8 million. By comparison, the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament brought in a little more than $24.2 million in direct spending when it was held at Verizon Center last year, according Kate Gibbs, Destination D.C.’s domestic media relations manager.
The Big Ten is still relatively young in the conference tournament business compared to several major conference counterparts — the Southeastern Conference held its first tournament in 1933, the ACC in 1954 and the Big East in 1980. That fact hasn’t been lost on Delany as he pushes for the Big Ten tournament’s future on the East Coast. If the tournament at Verizon Center was a “one-off,” he said, it would have been more difficult to put together over the past three years. And even as he wonders what the crowds might look like, the potential is certainly in place.
“We have slightly less than a million alums living in that corridor. We’ve got a quarter-million in D.C. Almost a 100,000 in Baltimore,” Delany said. “So if you’re going to be there, you got to be there.”