This year's Big Ten women's basketball tournament is about much more than the games.
For the first time in more than a decade, the tournament is moving from its location in Indianapolis. The new venue is the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, which won a bid to host the tournament this year and, depending on how well things go, again in 2015.
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Linda Scheck, Hoffman Estates director of tourism and business retention, said the tournament is a great opportunity not only for Hoffman Estates but for the entire region.
"This is a really big deal in our part of the world," she said.
The tournament runs from Thursday, March 7, to Sunday, March 10, and features teams from all 12 Big Ten schools. The winner will gain an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Women's Championship.
About 600 rooms are already booked for the teams at hotels in Hoffman Estates, Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village, Elgin and Schaumburg, Scheck said. She expects at least 1,000 more rooms will be booked for fans, families, boosters and alumni.
As for people seeking entertainment outside the tournament, Scheck said she expects guests to visit restaurants and attractions both in the suburbs -- some of which will display welcome stickers to Big Ten guests on their doors -- and in the city.
Ben Gibbs, general manager for the Sears Centre Arena, said it is impossible to gauge how many people may attend the event, but he is hoping to have at least 3,000 to 4,000 spectators -- many of whom he thinks will be suburban families -- at each game. By comparison, the more popular men's tournament a week later at the United Center is nearly sold out, he said.
Big Ten representative Dan Mihalik said in an email that the average overall attendance for the tournament is 30,783, or about an average of 6,088 fans per session.
The event's new location will likely cause a big turnout from some of the 300,000 to 400,000 Chicago-area alumni of the Big Ten schools, Gibbs said. The arena has already worked with the alumni departments at six of the 12 schools to send out about 80,000 mailers to inform local alumni about the event.
Gibbs said he hopes hosting such a big event at the arena will help the venue in the long run.
"Obviously we're proud that we got it in the first place and I think we're excited to show off what we created," he said. "But then beyond that, once it goes successfully, we can use this as a platform to pitch other tournaments and sports conferences and say, 'Look how well this went; look at all the things we did.'
"Once you really have an event of this caliber under your belt, all of a sudden you really do become a realistic option (for other events)," he added, noting that there are many possibilities for the future with the Illinois High School Association and other Big Ten events.
Tickets start at $15 for a single session, but the weekend also will feature plenty of free fan events. A bonfire outside the arena with music and free hot chocolate will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, March 8.
Former Big Ten All-Americans, including Wisconsin Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, Ohio State's Jim Jackson, Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves and Illinois' Kenny Battle, will sign autographs at 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 9.
A tipoff party will take place later that night at Pinstripes Restaurant in South Barrington. The celebration begins at 7:30 p.m. and includes bowling, bocce, food and drink specials, and live music.
Kids of all ages are welcome to take part in the free Skills & Thrills camp, featuring more than 15 interactive exhibits and games at 2 p.m. on March 9 and 10, in a climate-controlled tent outside the arena.
"We're just going to see what really resonates with fans and then develop and build on that for 2015," Gibbs said.
He added that to make sure there was a community tie to the event, about 24,000 bookmarks encouraging reading in exchange for a free ticket to a game were distributed to children in grades three through six. And a fundraiser headed by Gibbs raised about $40,000 to bring 3,000 Elgin Area School District U-46 seventh- and eighth-graders to a game and an anti-bullying seminar.
Tickets to all the games can be purchased for $80. Family packs with four general admission tickets for Saturday, March 9, four hot dogs, four sodas and four bags of chips will be sold for $76.
A full event schedule and more information can be found at ChicagoMarchIsOn.com.