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Rick Brown: Big Ten’s eastern swing painful to some, but makes sense

[ 0 ] May 7, 2014 |

Horace Greeley favored westward expansion. His advice to struggling Americans looking for new opportunity in the 1860s was to “go west, young man.”

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is also searching for new opportunity. And he’s looking in the opposite direction. It started with the addition of Penn State to the Midwest power conference in 1990. It continues on July 1 when Maryland and Rutgers come aboard.

There was also Tuesday’s announcement that the 2017 Big Ten men’s basketball tournament will be played at the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C. And it won’t be a one-time trip.

Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany addresses the media during the NCAA basketball Big East/Big Ten press conference at Madison Square Garden on May 5. (Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany addresses the media during the NCAA basketball Big East/Big Ten press conference at Madison Square Garden on May 5. (Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

“I see us returning here,” Delany said. “I see there being a regular rotation. We have three institutions in the East and 11 institutions in the Midwest. I don’t know what the exact rotation will be, but I can tell you (we’ll be in the East) regularly over the coming decades.”

Chicago and Indianapolis have hosted the previous 17 tournaments and will be the host sites for the next two seasons: Chicago in 2015, Indianapolis in 2016. The last two tournaments have been sellouts.

Truth be told, Indianapolis should be the permanent site. No city embraces the event like Indianapolis and the hotbed hoops state of Indiana.

Washington, D.C.? That flies in the face of logic and Midwest common sense. And it does nothing for the core Big Ten basketball fan who is used to jumping in the car and driving to support his or her team in the tournament.

Just look at the three Big Ten schools west of the Mississippi — Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. It’s a 543-mile trip, on average, to Indianapolis. And 383 miles, on average, to Chicago. Washington? 1,078 miles.

But save your protest letters to the Big Ten office, and silence your right to filibuster.

The tournament will return to the Midwest in the future. One would be crazy to dig up such long-standing roots. But this move to D.C. has nothing to do with fans or what they want. It has everything to do with big-picture thinking.

It seemed so irrational at first glance. But the more I think about it, the more I understand it. From a fiscal point of view, Delany has played his cards wisely. He’s borrowed a page from the manual that says you must spend money to make money.

Delany’s baby, the Big Ten Network, has exceeded expectations. Based on the premise of full BTN distribution in the Washington-New York corridor, and a ninth league football game starting in 2016, 12 of the 14 league schools are projected to make $44.5 million each from television revenue in 2017-18, according to a report in the Lafayette Journal and Courier.

The exceptions are newbies Maryland and Rutgers. Those schools must wait six years to receive full shares. That full share in 2012-13 was $25.7 million for 11 of the 12 schools. Nebraska is still waiting for its six-year window to close. It joined the Big Ten on July 1, 2011.

This is about image, television sets, ratings and dollars. It’s not about inconvenient trips for fan bases.

And why should anything make sense? The Big East has four teams from the Midwest. The Big 12 has 10 teams. The Big Ten is growing to 14.

This trip to Washington, D.C., was also a thank-you to Maryland, a longtime Atlantic Coast Conference member, for jumping ship.

“We’ve come here not to visit, but to live, to make friends, to try and be impactful and relevant,” Delany said Tuesday. “But most importantly, to embrace the University of Maryland, both athletically and academically.”

That also makes me wonder if this tournament will be played at Madison Square Garden in New York City in the future, a thank-you to Rutgers.

Change, like recruiting, is an inexact science. Remember when the Big Eight and four Texas schools from the Southwestern Conference became the Big 12 in 1994, and moved headquarters from Kansas City to Dallas?

The men’s basketball tournament, a staple at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, was played three years in Dallas, two more in Oklahoma City, before that league got it right. It’s in a different venue now, the Sprint Center, but it’s back where it belongs in Kansas City. And it will remain there through at least 2016.

The Big Ten should do the same thing in Indianapolis, once the welcome mats have been rolled up and Maryland and Rutgers feel as much a part of the Big Ten as Penn State and Nebraska do now.

Asked about disgruntled Big Ten fan bases over the move, Delany acknowledged that “change can be difficult.”

On Monday, Delany was at Madison Square Garden for the announcement of the Gavitt Tipoff Games. Eight Big Ten schools will open the season against eight Big East schools the first week of the season, starting in 2015. The Big East is looking to regain traction after the latest conference realignment shuffle. The Big Ten is looking to make a bigger footprint out East.

This push to the East might be a gamble. And it will likely leave some Big Ten fans scratching their heads and turning up their noses at the prospect of traveling to Washington, D.C., in March. But come the next realignment shuffle, the Big Ten has positioned itself wisely for making an even bigger East Coast presence.

And if conference realignment has taught us anything, it’s this: The good old days are long gone.

Rick Brown, a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year, covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.

Category: Big Ten, Iowa Hawkeyes Football, Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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