By Jim Weber
It’s been real, Indianapolis. But it’s past time for the Big Ten to permanently move its football title game and basketball tournaments to Chicago for three simple reasons.
The need to move to Chicago has never been more clear. This week’s men’s basketball tournament is in the Windy City after a five-year hiatus and has been sold out for all sessions for the first time in the event’s 16-year history. Did I mention all the general tickets were gone by January?
Compare that to the half-empty Bankers Life Fieldhouse fans saw during the first day of last year’s tournament in Indianapolis. Attendances for each Thursday game last year except Purdue’s are mysteriously listed as “N/A” but this picture from the Illinois-Iowa game gives you a pretty good feel for what the arena looked like. Even a great title game between Ohio State and Michigan State was still watched by about 1,000 people under capacity.
The Big Ten Football Championship Game last December was even more depressing. A matchup with two of the proudest fan bases in the country, Wisconsin and Nebraska, drew a measly 41,000 fans at 65,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium.
The attendance problem is a simple one to assess. For starters, just look at the size and make-up of each city’s population.
Chicago is the third biggest city in the United States with a population of nearly three million people. Indianapolis? It has less than a third of that with around 800,000 people. There are just so many more residents of Chicago, making it easy to fill seats at sporting events like this.
Then you have to take into account the type of people that make up each city. The Windy City is a place that people all over the Midwest flock to; Indy is full of people mostly from the Hoosier State. As a result, Indianapolis is full of Indiana and Purdue alums while Chi-Town is packed full of alums from each Big Ten school.
And because Chicago has so many 20-somethings living in it, the city is a Mecca of young fans who are passionate about their schools. If you are in Chicago on a college football Saturday, you will see packed bars representing each Big Ten team. Those are the same people that will be at the United Center this week to create a great atmosphere for the conference tournament.
The second big attendance problem in Indianapolis is that fans don’t want to travel there. As someone who has been there three times, let me say that one trip is enough. It’s an Up In The Air city: You either go there for mega business conferences and conventions or fly over it en route to a more desirable locale. Each time I went to Indianapolis, the only places I spent my time were my hotel and the sporting venue.
Indianapolis supporters like Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney will point out that hotels are close to the venues and the downtown is small so everything is within walking distance. That’s great for planning and logistics, but just a small portion of what makes the fan experience enjoyable.
While no ever ever takes a vacation to Indianapolis, Chicago is one of the country’s prettiest and most vibrant cities. I’ve only been to the Windy City twice, but each time I’ve taken note of the city’s beauty and endless tourist activities to fill the weekend. There’s shopping, boat tours, plays, famous restaurants, the Navy Pier, the Sears Tower (I refuse to call it the Willis Tower), the Art Institute and on and on and on.
Sorry Indy, but when it comes to hosting sporting events, you can’t hold a candle to Chicago.
The disparity between the venues in Indianapolis and Chicago is just as big.
The United Center is one of the most recognizable arenas in the country and full of history with Michael Jordan’s Bulls. The majority of sports fans couldn’t even tell you who plays in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which feels like a massive high school gym. With the Big East disintegrating and the Big Ten having arguably its strongest basketball season ever, the conference will soon fight with the ACC for college basketball supremacy. Its tournament deserves a venue that matches that prestige.
While Lucas Oil Stadium has the advantage of being indoors, there’s nothing special about it. Soldier Field is the second-most famous NFL stadium behind Lambeau Field and just feels like it’s meant to host a Big Ten football title game. Yes, Lucas Oil’s room temperature is nice but folks in Big Ten country can deal with inclement weather. Even in a blizzard, I can guarantee you Soldier Field would never draw a measly 41,000 fans for a Big Ten title game.
Permanently moving the football and basketball postseason to Chicago is a marketing play for the conference. The Big Ten’s headquarters and television station are located there, and it’s a fitting geographic capital of the conference. Delany should follow what the Big East did over the years by making New York “its city” and brand Chicago as “Big Ten Central.”
While you can’t put a dollar value on doing that, the Big Ten aligning itself with Chicago as two of the biggest, most powerful brands at the heart of the Midwest is invaluable to the conference’s image.
I realize that the Big Ten can’t drop Indianapolis immediately. The men and women’s basketball tournaments will be played there in 2014 and ’16, while the football game is locked up at Lucas Oil Stadium through 2015.
But once those deals run out, it’s time for the Big Ten to say goodbye to Indianapolis. The two have a long history together, but college sports is a big business and Delany has proven himself many times over to be the shrewdest of businessmen.
And when it comes down to the bottom line, Indianapolis just isn’t a good investment.