How Big Ten coaches, attendance figures could help decide if Minneapolis hosts more tournaments

21 March 2024

Two weeks of Big Ten Conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments wrapped up last Sunday at the Target Center, with Illinois outpacing Wisconsin 93-87 for the men’s championship. Red-clad Badger fans gathered in the arena lobby to watch the NCAA Men’s Tournament Selection Show before scattering to the nearby streets and parking ramps on their way out of town.

By Monday, Wendy Blackshaw, president and CEO of Minnesota Sports and Events (the entity that landed the tournaments), had come down with a cold, the inevitable byproduct of being around hundreds of people every day without enough sleep. It had been quite a couple of weeks. The women’s tournament, with Iowa’s charismatic Caitlin Clark as the prime attraction, drew a record 129,512 spectators, solidifying the Twin Cities’ standing as a national women’s sports hub. 

Too provincial, you say? Consider this: Besides more than doubling the old record of 47,923, set last year at Target Center, this year’s women’s tournament also topped the men’s record of 124,523, from 2013 at Chicago’s United Center. That’s right. No Big Ten Basketball Tournament, men’s or women’s, attracted more people than the women did here.

It’s no secret why: Iowa fans will follow Clark to Guam if that’s where the Hawkeyes are playing. That’s how the Gophers sold out their game with the Hawkeyes at Williams Arena three weeks ago. Blackshaw said Iowans bought 35% of the tickets for the Big Ten women’s tournament, compared to 26% by Minnesotans, and the conference announced a complete sellout weeks in advance.

Every session shattered records, each drawing more than 18,000, with a high of 18,746 for the semifinals. The crowds were similar to those at the 2022 Women’s Basketball Final Four, and a smidge more than the 2018 Volleyball Final Four, both also at Target Center.

“We have become the desired host city when it comes to women’s sports, especially women’s basketball,” Blackshaw said. “It just sort of underscores that. We’re a great place for women’s sports, and we definitely want more.”

The men’s tournament, however, was a different story. With no Clark-level star and middling support from the closest fan bases in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, the men drew the fewest fans (90,578) for a non-COVID year since the tournament went to a five-day, seven-session format in 2015. The average per session (12,940) was the lowest for any tournament unaffected by COVID, and the championship game crowd of 13,991 the second-lowest. Blackshaw said the men’s tournament offered a different vibe than the women’s, with more adults and alumni groups and fewer kids. 

Wisconsin Badgers guard AJ Storr working through Purdue Boilermakers players during the second half at Target Center. Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not like fans stayed away because they weren’t interested; the first eight games set average viewership records on the Big Ten Network. But for whatever reason, not enough chose to watch in person. 

Possible factors? High secondary market prices, for one. Plus, Minneapolis is a hefty drive (seven hours or more) from most Big Ten schools. Flights into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, a Delta hub, often run hundreds of dollars more than into Chicago and Indianapolis, the most popular past tournament sites. 

At Big Ten Media Days before the season, several coaches privately griped about coming to Minneapolis, insisting Chicago and Indianapolis were more convenient. Publicly, their lack of enthusiasm was noticeable. 

During tournaments, coaches routinely offer shoutouts to the host city or organizing committee at postgame press conferences, usually without being asked. (I’ve covered enough of these the last 20 years to see it myself.) But here, not a single coach did, male or female. Penn State women’s coach Carolyn Kieger came the closest, praising the atmosphere and thanking the conference for putting on a great tournament after a quarterfinal loss to Iowa.

If the coaches have their way, the tournaments might never come back. It doesn’t help that Kevin Warren, the former Vikings CEO and Big Ten Commissioner who led the push to bring them here, left in 2023 to run the Chicago Bears. Future tournament sites haven’t been announced yet, and Blackshaw declined comment on the bid process. “We would love to have [them] again, for sure,” she added. 

The Big Ten did not make a conference official available for an interview. Instead, a communications vice president emailed MinnPost a statement that began, “We have enjoyed hosting our women’s and men’s basketball tournaments in Minneapolis” before describing the application process for host cities. “The Council of Presidents/Chancellors makes the final decision,” it read. The addition of four Pac-12 schools this fall introduces an additional complication, though it also centralizes Minneapolis in the Big Ten’s coast-to-coast footprint. 

“There are hundreds of components measured when you’re in that competitive process of submitting a bid up against other cities,” Blackshaw said. “The coaches thinking that Indy and Chicago are a little more convenient, yeah, I’m sure that’s one component. But there are many other components that play into it. I do know the Big Ten is interested, on kind of an overall basis, in moving things around.”

Certainly, the tournaments injected life and dollars into a downtown that could use more of both. According to the tourism group Meet Minneapolis, the Big Ten Women’s Tournament and American Physical Society meeting at the Convention Center combined to fill 82.9% of Minneapolis hotel rooms from March 3-9, the highest weekly occupancy rate since October 6-12, 2019. (It was 38.5% for the same period in 2023.) 

March 5 alone saw 97.3% of hotel rooms occupied, the most since Oct. 24, 2019, when the Vikings hosted Washington in a Thursday night NFL game.  

A casual walk Saturday in the vicinity of the Target Center after the men’s semifinals, the night before St. Patrick’s Day, found lines outside Kieran’s Irish Pub on North 6th Street and Cowboy Jack’s on North 5th Street. Nearby, Tom’s Watch Bar, the Loon Cafe, O’Donovan’s and Last Call were all packed. I saw as many people in Irish green as Wisconsin and Nebraska red.  

Speaking of lines: Lengthy ones to get into the women’s tournament, stretching hundreds of yards into B Ramp and Mayo Clinic Square, stemmed from the Big Ten failing to anticipate Clark’s popularity and selling too many general admission tickets. Queuing up all ticket holders in the same line, whether they had reserved seats or not, was another mistake.

Target Center officials on the morning of the semifinals rerouted one line down the sidewalk on First Avenue, where Blackshaw and her team served fans coffee, water, hot chocolate and cookies and passed out blankets.   

“People were so appreciative,” she said. “That was one of my favorite parts.”

The post How Big Ten coaches, attendance figures could help decide if Minneapolis hosts more tournaments appeared first on MinnPost.

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