The Big Ten men’s basketball tournaments kicks off – pardon me, “tips off” – Wednesday with Penn State playing Nebraska. What’s unique about this year’s tournament is its location. Since its inception in 1998 the Big Ten tournament has been played in either Chicago or Indianapolis, but this year it will take place in Washington, D.C. Lest you think the east coast venue is a one-off occurrence, the 2018 Big Ten Tournament will be played at Madison Square Garden.
I understand why the Big Ten is changing venues, but I still don’t like it. There is no denying that college sports conferences like the Big Ten exist to make money. This usually does not bother me because I benefit from their existence. However, the problem is that the pursuit revenue often erodes the essence of what made the conference popular to begin with. Let’s take Big Ten expansion as an example.
Outside of adding viewers on the east coast, the Big Ten does not benefit much from having Maryland or Rutgers.* Neither school is a football power and neither school is particularly good at basketball. In fact, Rutgers had not made the NCAA Tournament since 1991. More importantly, none of the historic Big Ten schools have any semblance of a rivalry with the Terrapins or Scarlet Knights. This is a stark contrast to, say, Minnesota and Wisconsin, who have been battling since the 19th century. Unfortunately some of these century-old gridiron rivalries are more infrequently played because Maryland and Rutgers cannot play themselves. This dilution of rivalries makes the conference less fun for fans.
*Admittedly, these viewers are a massive benefit.
Now, a logical progression of conference expansion is to hold the Big Ten Tournament near their newest members. Indeed, Washington, D.C. and New York City are major metropolitan areas that the Big Ten (understandably) wants to start squeezing juice from, so hosting tournaments there makes sense. The problem is that the Big Ten’s focus on the East Coast loses sight of who truly cares about the conference.
I’m guessing that fans in Milwaukee, Chicago, Iowa City, Indianapolis, Detroit, (and so on) that attend the BTT every year are less than thrilled right now. The Big Ten should care about this sentiment because sooner or later diehard fans are going to start tuning out. Badger fans may always watch Badger games, but it’s still a problem if they start losing interest in watching Michigan State play Iowa. This will happen if the Big Ten forgets about their base. The declining TV ratings of the NFL should be a warning to the Big Ten that a monomaniacal focus on money can lessen interest.
The Big Ten is still in an incredibly strong position and will be even if the 2019 tournament is played in Barrow, Alaska. Even so, after 2018 the league should permanently move the Big Ten Tournament to the Midwest. (Note to Big Ten: A new arena in Milwaukee will open soon!). The Midwest is where most of the diehard Big Ten fans live and these fans are why the conference became such a powerhouse to begin with. At the very least the Big Ten can throw their fans a bone by holding their annual basketball tournament nearby. Besides, games are more fun to watch when the seats are filled.