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The College Conference Arms Race Comes to New York City

Why have so many conference basketball tournaments been held in the Big Apple in recent years? And what can that tell us about the state of this post-realignment era?

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John Beilein’s speech was as much a celebration of New York City as it was of the Michigan team that had just beaten Purdue 75-66 to win the 2018 Big Ten tournament. The Wolverines coach stood at midcourt of Madison Square Garden, and after briefly lamenting how little rest his team had gotten, hollered: “We could sacrifice that to come to NEW YORK CITY”—thunderous applause, and then a bunch of words that are indecipherable on my iPhone recording because of the thunderous applause—“to play in THE WORLD’S GREATEST ARENA, in front of THESE FANS.”

This is the type of speech you might hear a coach give after winning a championship at home, but Michigan was far from home—it was more than 600 miles from its campus in Ann Arbor. Still, the crowd at MSG was vehemently pro-Michigan, perhaps even more so than if the final had been held closer to the school, in one of the tournament’s traditional host cities, Chicago or Indianapolis. Support for the Wolverines can be found in many places—you could put a Michigan sporting event on Mars and still get a quality “GO BLUE” chant going—but especially in New York, where plenty of Michigan alumni live. Ann Arbor is close to Detroit, but by student population, it might as well be a suburb of Hackensack, New Jersey.

When the Big Ten announced in 2014 that it would hold its 2018 conference basketball tournament hundreds of miles away from the league’s Midwestern constituents, the decision was widely panned. It was panned even more when it became clear that the league would have to play its tournament a week earlier than usual, since Madison Square Garden already had a contract in place to host the Big East tournament in the days leading up to Selection Sunday. That start date led to a compressed league schedule, which Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in February “wasn’t healthy,” forcing players to cram more games into less time, something their bodies shouldn’t be asked to handle.

The mockery peaked the week of the tournament, when an image emerged of a faux crossroads in Midtown Manhattan featuring 14 arrows pointing west, showing the large distances to each Big Ten school. Hey, it seemed like the sign was saying. You’re supposed to be holding this tournament over there.

But then the tournament happened, and everyone loved it. Attendance was great, and the Michigan–Michigan State game was a sellout. Rutgers, the only member school within a reasonable distance of the city, played surprisingly well, with Scarlet Knights fans legitimately taking over the Garden for a day or two. Players, coaches, and fans all spoke glowingly about the luster of the event taking place in MSG. The arena’s allure was even given credit for the high quality of play, as 12 of the 13 games were decided by 11 points or fewer. (Knicks fan checking in here: The building does not always guarantee good basketball.) The tournament has been declared a success. Even the compressed league schedule has been viewed as somewhat of a positive, since the Big Ten was the only major conference tournament on television for a week.

But as my colleague Mark Titus wrote earlier this week, conference tournaments are supposed to be regional celebrations. So why are college sports leagues insistent on abandoning their home turf, and will they continue to do so?

Keita Bates-Diop
Keita Bates-Diop
Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Athletic conferences and fast-food chains are perhaps the two strongest regional forces in America. The Big Ten tournament at MSG and the Chick-fil-A on 37th Street and 6th Avenue are signs that both are interested in expanding beyond their regional footprints. And the Big Ten’s New York City push isn’t a one-off: It held its tournament in Washington, D.C., last year, also hundreds of miles from most member schools. The ACC has held its tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for each of the past two years, way north of its historic North Carolina home. (The arena was peppered in Bojangles’ ads; the nearest Bojangles’ to Brooklyn sits more than 120 miles west, in Reading, Pennsylvania.) This week, the SEC is holding its tournament in St. Louis, close to the University of Missouri and at least 300 miles from every other school in the league.

The Big Ten’s claim to New York is built on a massively profitable loophole. In 2014, the conference that once had a nominally accurate 10 teams added its 13th and 14th members, Maryland and Rutgers. It had no geographic connection to either school—both are located hundreds of miles from the closest Big Ten school, Penn State, which itself is hundreds of miles from the next-closest Big Ten school. And from an athletic perspective, Rutgers seemed inadequate for Big Ten competition, a notion that has generally proved accurate: The Scarlet Knights have gone 7-27 in football and finished dead last in basketball in each of their four seasons in the league. In the last year for which athletic department revenue data is publicly available, Rutgers finished 12th of the 13 reporting Big Ten schools.

But none of these factors is as important as Rutgers and Maryland existing in close proximity to New York and Washington, D.C. That’s because by adding schools near cities with such sizable populations, the Big Ten’s cash cow, the Big Ten Network, was able to add the subscriptions of millions of cable customers. For every Big Ten sports fan in New York—like me!—whom this benefited, there are probably dozens of others who didn’t realize they were suddenly shuffling their cash to a league they don’t care about. The network could also charge higher fees to advertisers, because it was airing in big media markets. After adding Rutgers, the BTN earned $18 million more per year from Cablevision alone, and the Big Ten’s total revenue increased 33 percent upon adding Maryland and Rutgers.

The entire wave of conference expansion that took place from 2010 to 2014 was driven by cable fees that came with geographic expansion: the ACC added Syracuse, also theoretically granting the league access to New York, as well as Pittsburgh and Louisville; the SEC annexed Texas A&M and not-Southeastern-at-all Missouri; the Pac-12 added Utah and Colorado. Excluding the Big 12’s addition of TCU, every single school that realigned to a major conference came from a state in which that conference didn’t already have a presence. In the era of cord-cutting, with cable subscriptions, advertising revenue, and overall television viewership all tumbling at industry-shaking rates, college sports leagues structured their business model around sneaking onto the cable packages of people who wouldn’t notice.

I suspect conferences know that the cable fees foundation upon which they have built their empires is not particularly sturdy. They are now saddled with a handful of programs in geographically inconvenient locations. The Big Ten wants to frame this as evidence it’s a national brand, and not merely some provincial sideshow. Since expanding to 14 members, the Big Ten has literally run an ad campaign suggesting that the entire United States is Big Ten country, panning across an animated map of America, from the Rose Bowl to Rutgers.

Acquiring geographic territory appears to have been regarded as a get-rich-quick scheme—a very successful get-rich-quick scheme, but a get-rich-quick scheme nonetheless. Beyond that, conferences treated states in much the same way that the electoral college does: as large swaths of land that carry a certain of number points. And this wave of putting conference tournaments in unconventional places is sort of like presidential candidates hitting the campaign trail, proving that a given part of the nation is, in fact, a part of the nation in which they are essential. Look at how many people in this arena are cheering!

Only now comes the hard part: Recognizing expansionism as more than just a means to an end.

ACC mascots
ACC mascots

How do you show that you’re the center of attention in a city as big as New York? Apparently, you do two things: Arrange a photo shoot at the New York Stock Exchange, and get the Empire State Building to change its colors. On February 27, Big Ten Network anchors helped ring the closing bell at the stock exchange, and after Michigan won the tournament championship, the Empire State Building went maize and blue on March 4. Truly, these New York moments proved that New York is a Big Ten town.

One problem with those flexes, though: The ACC and Big East do the exact same things. The ACC’s mascots visited the stock exchange on March 6, and on March 9 the Empire State Building will cycle through all 15 ACC schools’ colors. The Big East commissioner rang the NYSE’s opening bell on March 7, and after the league’s championship game on March 10, the Empire State Building will light up with the colors of the winning team. I’m guessing the traders on the stock exchange floor have lost track of which conference is supposedly connected to New York. A league can’t lay claim to a city with symbolic gestures when two other leagues are making the same symbolic gestures within a roughly two-week span.

The Big Ten and ACC are not particularly subtle in their attempts to point out that they are holding conference tournaments in New York. At the Big Ten event, videos showed coaches and players attempting to name as many pizza toppings as they could, as well as their favorite varieties of bagel. (A stunning amount answered some variety of cinnamon.) In interviews, the players went out of their way to praise the experience: Michigan State star Miles Bridges dropped a “Mecca of Basketball” reference after knocking off Wisconsin; Michigan’s Charles Matthews said it was “everybody’s childhood dream to say they played in the Garden” after beating Iowa; over in the ACC, Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson said “we like that city life” after a win over Virginia Tech. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has repeatedly talked about the value of holding the tournament in a place that’s relatively close to his team’s campus, and used a press conference last year to launch into a tirade dragging the ACC tournament’s usual home of Greensboro, North Carolina. (The tournament will return to Carolina in 2019 and 2020, while the Big Ten event will head back to Chicago next March.)

These reassurances and debates don’t need to take place at the Big East tournament, which has been held at MSG since 1983. As a kid, I always felt a certain connection to the Big East, because I loved the Knicks and the Big East played in the same venue that the Knicks did. I liked that Providence had a player named God Shammgod, and that UConn had Ray Allen and an Israeli player named Doron Sheffer. When Allen Iverson and Ray Allen squared off in the 1996 league championship game, I felt some connection to it as a kid from New York, even though the teams were from D.C. and Connecticut.

Of all the conference basketball games I’ve covered in New York since becoming a writer, the loudest was the 2016 Big East championship game between Seton Hall and Villanova. There’s a beautiful cacophony to a great neutral-site basketball game, with both fan bases trying to claim ownership of an arena with pure noise. I was impressed with the atmosphere at last year’s Duke–North Carolina clash at Barclays, and with how the Michigan faithful turned out last week. But neither had the same vibe as Jersey taking on Philly in New York.

At its best, a conference basketball tournament feels like a regional fan meet-up in a way nothing else in sports can. Whereas league football championships pit two teams in one game, conference tournaments feature 10 or more programs and fan bases shuffling through an arena in a matter of days, a frenzied flurry of mascots and pep bands. The Big Ten tournament’s logo is a pinwheel, with the color of each school coming together to meet in a central spot. And by coming to hold their tournaments in New York, the Big Ten and ACC have made events that feel like novelty acts. Fun novelty acts, but novelty acts nonetheless.

The past decade of college sports has played out like a game of Risk. The leagues realize the importance of holding large events in places that commemorate their geographic conquests. They grasp that their basketball tournaments are regional by design, and have used that regionalism to legitimize their power grabs. Yet in the process, they’ve tried to push two messages that are inherently at odds. Conferences are trumpeting the premise that they have somehow broken free from their distinct pockets of America to become prominent national forces, while simultaneously trying to cling to the sentimental ties forged by their original geography, the ones that made them integral parts of the fabric of the various regions of the country in the first place.