WASHINGTON — It’s Christmas, but Christmas with the in-laws. The casserole tastes different. The stockings hang over the steps instead of the fireplace. The songs are the same, but the piano hasn’t been tuned in decades.
“I think it’s garbage, frankly,” Will O’Neill said, scowling at his beer.
“I mean, there are a lot of transplants here. And I like visiting D.C. Just in terms of trying to get to (your) regular fan base, I think it’s terrible. Chicago is the only location that should be hosting the Big Ten Tournament, given its proximity to all of the actual Big Ten teams. I get it — Rutgers, Maryland (are) up close. But as far as I’m concerned, they’re barely Big Ten teams.”
O’Neill is a Wisconsin native, a Wisconsin alum and a Wisconsin fan — Badger born and Badger bred. On the other end of The Greene Turtle’s crowded foyer, some 50 yards down the counter, another UW fan, Kurt Schwartz, was polishing off a tower of onion rings, savoring the fact that the carnival was coming to him for once.
“And it’s not going to happen for another five or six years,” Schwartz shrugged. “I know it’s a stretch for the Big Ten to come out here. But yeah, I think it’s awesome. It gives the Big Ten more presence, more distance.”
A California native and a District resident for the last two years, Schwartz had been bitten by the Wisconsin bug while living in Milwaukee, adopting Bucky as his own.
“I think D.C. is diverse enough so that every college is represented here, pretty much,” Schwartz said. “I think Big Ten (fans) are great travelers. I think Wisconsin fans are great travelers. The whole Big Ten is a great traveling league.”
Which is why he assumed there would be at least decent crowds at the first Big Ten tourney on the Atlantic Coast, especially once the quarterfinals and semis rolled around. What he didn’t expect was that a ticket for Saturday’s doubleheader was going to take such a bite out of his credit card.
“The seats I found four days ago were $116 apiece for the two games (Saturday),” Schwartz said. “There’s plenty of revenue, absolutely.
“Probably, it’s all about money. I’m sure there’s a lot of revenue here. Chicago would be a big one, too. But yeah, I think here and Chicago, you’re probably going to get a lot of diversity.”
‘I don’t think it’s something you need to do every year’
When it comes to opinions on D.C. and the 2017 Big Ten tourney, you end up with a lot of diversity, too. While it hasn’t been an unqualified success, neither has it been the turkey some had feared coming in to the weekend.
“I like (D.C.), but being a guy that’s from the (Upper Peninsula), where you can go from one side of the UP to another in about an hour, getting to practice is a little more difficult because the traffic out here,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I mean, God bless you people, I don’t know how you do it.
“The planning was different. ‘Is it going to be 20 minutes?’ We talk in miles, you guys (in D.C.) talk in minutes, or hours, I should say, to get somewhere.
“That’s probably the biggest adjustment — trying to figure out when to leave, when to be places. The venue was awesome. It’s different.”
The Verizon Center lacks the gravitas of Chicago’s United Center, with its giant Michael Jordan statue, or the sheen of Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But there are also more walkable restaurants relative to the venue here than in the Windy City, and comparable to what you’ll find in downtown Indy, although the latter’s hotels are of a more palatable cost and proximity.
And parking? Fuhgetaboutit.
After 19 years rotating between Chicago and Indianapolis, the Big Ten’s initial steps into the Beltway’s sporting lore came on tippy-toes. The opener Wednesday between Nebraska and Penn State, a matchup that would’ve made for a delightful — and spirited — football tilt, turned into a delightful, spirited overtime basketball game. Albeit one that was watched, on hand, by merely hundreds.
Oh, and Flavor Flav.
The second round Thursday, when the tourney usually starts picking up steam, reportedly drew almost 6,900 fewer fans in two sessions than it did at the more familiar Bankers Life at this time a year ago, according to the Indianapolis Star.
Maryland fans turned out in droves Friday, as expected, only to be turned away by the unexpected power bloc of Northwestern basketball and America’s most famous hoops mom — actress/comedienne Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose son, Charlie Hall, is a Wildcat walk-on. (Charlie got the height from Dad, actor/director/writer Brad Hall.)
“I loved it — I thought it was great,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said after his Gophers were eliminated by Michigan in the first semi Saturday. “I don’t think it’s something you need to do every year. But if you’re doing it 10 percent of the time, I think it’s a nice change of pace for everybody.
“One thing I’ll never question is what Commissioner (Jim) Delany is doing. He’s done an unbelievable job of building this conference, its brand. He feels it’s necessary, adding Maryland and Rutgers, that we live in their region, as well.”
‘There’s a large Midwestern presence’
Building the brand means planting flags and pressing flesh, even 850-odd miles from Madison. Roughly 250,000 alumni from Big Ten schools reside in greater Washington, while at least 100,000 more call nearby Baltimore home.
“The thing is, when you have a city like Washington, there’s a large Midwestern presence,” said Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC. “Washington is one of the few towns where universities and (fans) of the universities have their own activities and clubs, where the Indiana folks have met at such and such a bar forever. And that’s just part of the culture here.”
Purnita Howlader, president of the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s D.C. chapter, says approximately 8,500 Badgers alums live in greater Washington, and another boatload are expected to crash the Verizon Center for the championship game between UW and Michigan. The D.C. chapter has not one, but two bars in the area for weekend game watches and last year raised more than $31,000 in scholarship money for Badgers students.
“I’m confident we had several thousand at the Verizon Center (Saturday),” she said via email. “I’m expecting a lot of red in stands (Sunday) as well.”
The Big Ten tourney is expected to generate $33.3 million in direct spending, according to Destination DC spokesperson Kate Gibbs, or close to 10 million more than the $24.3 million created by the ACC Tournament in 2016.
More out-of-towners, more tourists, fewer locals = more money.
“Part of our (directive) is to make sure they have such an unbelievable experience in Washington,” Ferguson said, “to make sure they want to come back.”
‘From a fan experience, you know, I don’t think it’s the best idea’
The Big Ten is smiling pretty and saying the nice, politically correct things, publicly. Privately, it’s more of a wait-and-see. The East Coast tour continues next March when New York City’s storied Madison Square Garden hosts the 2018 tourney, with the rotation of Chicago (2019, 2021) and Indy (2020, 2022) returning in the four-year cycle after that.
“Again, listen — for the alumni that have the means, cool,” O’Neill said of 2018’s Big Apple adventure. “But again, if they want to expand out east, I get that. It’s all TV. But from a fan experience, you know, I don’t think it’s the best idea.”
He said he flew out this week, in part, because an old pal and fellow Badgers fan lived in the area and that it was a fun excuse to get together and catch up.
“I don’t think I’m in the same circumstances that a lot of other fans are,” he said. “For me, flying out here, it’s not that big of a deal. Whereas I think in Chicago, you’ll get a lot more fans that are (probably) going to drive and actually visit the city. For a majority of Big Ten schools’ (fans), driving to D.C. is not feasible.
“I went to all the games (Friday) and the stadium was a small-fraction filled. I guarantee you, no more than a third filled.”
O’Neill said he got into the building Thursday for the second round for less than $20 and to the quarterfinals Friday for roughly $40. Tickets for Wolverines-Badgers, as of early Sunday morning, could be had for as little as $65 via secondary-market sites such as VividSeats.com.
“The best part of D.C. is the fact there are transplants from every Big Ten school here,” O’Neill said. “But I think you’d have that in Chicago. And I think it’s just more accessible to a majority of the fan bases.”
Out of curiosity, where’s home again?
O’Neill looked up from the beer and grinned.
“Chicago,” he said.
Merry Christmas, everybody.