Chicago still sweetest home for Big Ten Tourney

This weekend’s Wisch List newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)


By Dave Wischnowsky

Years ago, I was told a story about a University of Iowa hoops fan who was making travel plans to attend the Big Ten Basketball Tournament in Chicago for the first time.

Having never before been to “The House That Michael Jordan Built” and apparently unfamiliar with the Windy City as a whole, the Hawkeyes diehard is said to have called the front office at the United Center to ask what he considered a perfectly reasonable question.

He wanted to know where outside the stadium he could “power down” his RV.

Unfortunately for that Iowan, the UC isn’t a truck stop. Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, where the Big Ten Tourney has been held for the past five years, isn’t either. But the surrounding area in downtown Indy is likely a bit more RV-friendly than the West Side of Chicago.

It’s more pedestrian-friendly too. Nevertheless, the Chicago still remains the sweetest home for the Big Ten Tourney. And I’m glad that it’s been back this week.

On Tuesday, I took a midday stroll through the Loop, and as I headed north on sunny State Street from Adams, I admired the banners hanging from the light posts that trumpeted the Big Ten and each of its member schools. A couple of blocks ahead, I heard actual trumpets playing the University of Illinois fight song through a speaker embedded in a sidewalk display. And when I turned west onto Washington, I soon came upon Daley Plaza where the Big Ten’s “Hoops Fest” was being erected in the long-faced shadow of The Picasso.

It’s another 2.4 miles west from Daley Plaza to the United Center, which doesn’t make Chicago’s Big Ten Tourney amenities compact in the way that Indianapolis’ are. But Chicago itself isn’t a compact city. It’s a sprawling metropolis with 9.4 million people living within its metro area, including more than 300,000 Big Ten alumni.

And that’s a big part of the Chicago’s appeal. With population numbers like that, the Big Ten is guaranteed to have huge crowds filling the UC, no matter which schools had made to this weekend’s semifinal and final games.

On Feb. 21, the Big Ten announced that for the first time in its conference tournament’s 16-year history, the entire four-day even had sold out in advance. It’s no coincidence that milestone was achieved in the tourney’s first return to Chicago since 2007.

Last year, the Big Ten Tournament did set an attendance record for Indianapolis by drawing a total of 107,737 fans, but the number is misleading because the tourney was expanded from five sessions to six with the addition of Nebraska. That extra session accounted for much of the bump in attendance from the 86,767 fans that attended in 2011. According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, if you take away the 17,125 fans from the sixth session – the title game – the 2012 five-session total was only 90,612.

This weekend, it’s expected that the United Center may challenge the tournament attendance record of 109,769 (an average of 21,954 fans per session) set there in 2001. If so, that will far outstrip last year’s per-session attendance average of just 17,956 at Bankers Life, which seats 18,165.

I like Indy and the convenience of its cozy downtown. Hotels, bars and restaurants are just a short jaunt from Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the city has done a fine job as host. It deserves to keep having the Big Ten Tournament come back to town. But with crowds like the ones that the United Center can draw, the Windy City does too.

Even if you can’t find a place to power down your RV.