The safe choice would be for the Big Ten to leave the men’s basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis from now to the apocalypse. The steady option would be to cement its biggest winter party in a downtown that’s easy for most of its base to reach, easy for most of its fans to afford, easy for most of them to walk around and navigate.
But Jim Delany doesn’t do easy. Or safe. Or steady. If there’s an envelope to push, and that envelope is stuffed with cash, the Big Ten’s commissioner is going to do his damnedest to push it.
When Delany plants a flag someplace, he doesn’t fold his arms with smug satisfaction and walk away. Oh, no. He starts to build a little fort around that flag pole, one tiny brick at a time.
The world is his Monopoly board. And now Delany is hellbent on locking up Boardwalk and Park Place.
When Maryland and Rutgers announced in November 2012 their intentions to join the conference, it was only a matter of time before the little bricks went up around the Big Apple and along the Beltway. Long headquartered in the Chicago suburbs, the Big Ten opened a second office in midtown Manhattan in 2014.
New York City doesn’t give a flip, but that’s not the point. The league hosted its first men’s basketball conference media day in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, and as part of the proceedings, Delany doubled down on the Big Ten’s East Coast strategy:
Delany says the presumption is Washington DC and New York hosting Big Ten Tournaments won’t be one off occasions.
— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) October 13, 2016
The 2017 men’s tourney will be at D.C.’s Verizon Center; in 2018, venerable Madison Square Garden. It’s about integrating the new kids, playing to the strengths of your latest toys. Delany recently inked a long-term deal to move the conference baseball championship to Omaha’s gorgeous TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series. It throws Nebraska a bone, and given that the Big Ten has only managed to qualify two teams for the CWS in the last 35 years — Michigan in 1984 and Indiana in 2013 — why the heck should Texas, Miami, Arizona State, LSU and Cal-State Whatever get all of the fun of frolicking in the Old Market?
“It really is an example of a traditional conference that continues to change,” Delany told reporters. “Our actions are aligned with our plans.”
And their plans are to dig in their heels until something — that something being money — convinces them otherwise.
Which means they’ll be back, and being back means trying to shoehorn teams the locals ignore inside a Trojan horse dressed like a sport the locals care about — college basketball. Yes, Indianapolis makes the most sense, the way it does for football. Yes, Chicago is the motherland. But if you’re serious about New York and D.C., if you’re serious about creating and shoring up new pipelines, men’s hoops is your best possible export.
And let’s be clear: On the surface, it’s a risk. New York City is expensive to enjoy and even more expensive to get to, at least relative to the cost-of-living norms in Iowa City, Champaign or Madison. Washington, same deal.
Delany is turning his heels against the base in order to nestle closer to the entities that control the nation’s media, finance and government. The point isn’t to win the hearts of the many — like Chicago, New York is a pro town first and foremost — so much as to cater to the select, elite, most powerful few.
Unless Notre Dame would somehow capitulate — Hell would freeze over first — there is no more Midwest left to conquer.
New York is different. Tradition screams for Syracuse, St. John’s and Georgetown scrapping in the Garden, but realignment — a fractious movement in which Delany and the Big Ten played no small part in getting off the ground — has scattered old rivalries, traditional rivalries, the way a blower does a pile of leaves.
Now the ACC wants to leverage Syracuse to get into New York City, the Big Ten wants to leverage Rutgers to do the same, and the Big East would like to remind everyone that it hasn’t gone anywhere, despite going the all-private, all-parochial route.
Of course, Delany rarely moves any chess piece that isn’t driven by hard data, sound data, first. A September 2010 Wall Street Journal survey of local alumni associations found that Penn State had 23,000 alums in metro New York City; Michigan had 12,592 alums; Ohio State, 4,600; Nebraska, 3,171.
When the New York Times put together a more detailed “heat” map of college football loyalties based on Facebook “likes” by zip code in 2014, it showed the Big Apple to be a collegiate hodge-podge, split by borough among the likes of Syracuse, Penn State, Notre Dame, Rutgers or Michigan, but none with more than 10 percent of support. Among the zip codes on the District of Columbia side of metro Washington, Maryland fans were the No.1 “liked” school in every instance, with at least one other Big Ten program — Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State — also listed among the top-3 most-liked schools.
“This is a very important part of the country for us,” the commish said.
As a gambit, it smacks of complete and utter hubris. But then, so did the Big Ten Network, and Delany has spent the last decade laughing all the way to the bank.