Welcome to my new column, Things I Have A Beef With, in which I get unreasonably worked up about things that probably don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Today, I’d like to talk about my beef with the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Crimson Quarry did a great overview of why it’s emblematic of a bigger problem with the Big Ten Conference, but I think there’s plenty more to explore.
1: This Isn’t For Us
Maybe if you’re a Rutgers loyalist, this is for you. Maybe if you’re in Maryland or eastern Pennsylvania, this is somewhat for you.
But what about for those of us who live in the Midwest, in the states whose universities started the Big Ten conference? We’re not the target audience.
The parties most satisfied with this tournament at Madison Square Garden would seem to be the sports media, who have all taken great pains to remind you at every juncture that the Big Ten Tournament is in Madison Square Garden, and it just MEANS MORE. Clearly the hallowed ground where the Knicks won two championships 45 and 48 years ago takes what had been a conventional tournament to a whole new level of excitement.
Watch any broadcast of any game or go on Twitter and you’ll find people covering the event who are very excited that it’s at MSG. The league’s official network is probably the most satisfied.
2: Chasing the Dragon
The other target audience appears to be people who aren’t yet fans of the Big Ten Conference. The conference is begging for their attention, which is yet another part of the whole campaign to bundle BTN into more cable packages. This is now the whole point of the Big Ten, by the way: getting BTN included in more bundled cable packages. To that end, the Big Ten has done everything in its power over the last five years or so to attract people who aren’t fans of the Big Ten.
There’s a parallel here. You may remember a time when NASCAR was very mainstream. From about 1998 to about 2007, NASCAR was firmly cemented as no less than the fourth most popular American sports league by all metrics, and no other sport could pack nearly 200,000 people into a venue in the middle of nowhere near the Alabama-Georgia border.
Brian France took over as the CEO and President of NASCAR in 2003, when the sport had a tremendous amount of momentum. Twenty-one million viewers tuned in to watch the season-opening Daytona 500, a record that still stands. However, France had an averse reaction to what he saw as a dull championship battle and implemented a “postseason” in 2004 in an effort to chase more casual fans. During the surge in popularity through the ‘90’s and early 2000s, tracks were built in the Chicago area, Las Vegas, Kansas and Kentucky and the series created a race at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Changes to the way the sport was televised and increasing revision of the “postseason” system further cemented NASCAR’s desire to chase the casual viewer, the ‘non-NASCAR fan’.
Starting in 2007, NASCAR has taken a sharp decline in attendance and TV ratings, and while the economic recession did make races much more expensive to travel for, the huge hardcore NASCAR fanbase in the southeast had seen NASCAR moving away from them. The schedule started to exclude North Wilkesboro and Rockingham in North Carolina and reducing the number of races at places like Darlington, South Carolina, and Atlanta. The recent rules changes that creates “intermission” periods like in hockey and “knockout-style playoffs” like stick-and-ball sports have further alienated the traditional fanbase in the name of chasing people who aren’t NASCAR fans.
Basically, NASCAR has been alienating its traditional fanbase because it values people who aren’t NASCAR fans more than people who are, and this has been a factor in its decline.
You’d think college fans would be the most loyal fans in America, but you’d also probably think NASCAR fans would be up there.
So what’s it gonna be, Big Ten? Wanna see if you can expand the TV network to mainland Europe or Dubai or somewhere else?
3: Madison Square Garden Is Overrated
There, I said it. But somebody had to.
The name “Madison Square Garden” has existed since 1879, but the Garden itself was built in 1968 and is not in Madison Square. The narrative the media has been peddling is that this is the crown jewel of basketball, the one place every aspiring basketball player dreams of playing. Sure, we could have the entire tournament in March, but then we couldn’t have it in New York, the center of the known universe.
By constantly trotting out this narrative, our own Big Ten Conference betrays the humble Midwesterners that make up its core audience. The idea that MSG makes this more special than it’s ever been is insulting to those of us who like our so-called “flyover states” and don’t buy into the hype about NYC being more important than every city in America’s heartland.
But who cares about us? After all, we already have the Big Ten Network.
There are two reasons anyone claims Madison Square Garden is a basketball Mecca. One is because of the Knicks’ much-ballyhooed NBA title in 1970, when the Garden erupted as a hobbled Willis Reed took the court against the Lakers. You know what happened much more recently than that? The Pistons won three titles, the Bulls won six in eight years, the Cavaliers finally got to the top, and the Pacers, Bucks and Timberwolves...definitely...existed. But still, the Midwest has plenty of NBA history of its own.
The other reason it’s a “basketball Mecca”? Because the Big East Tournament is played there. The godfather of all the big-time conference tournaments, the Big East tournament is still played today, and the Big Ten volunteered to be its second undercard. If you wanna play at a truly historic venue in NYC, try Rucker Park.
In conclusion, I don’t really care how many Rutgers it produced, the Big Ten Tournament in Madison Square Garden, as a concept, is something I have a beef with.