After calling Conseco Field House in Indianapolis home for 17 of the last 18 years, the Big Ten's move to the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates for the conference's women's basketball tournament this past weekend met with favorable reviews from the Big Ten and the Sears Centre.
While attendance clearly was lower than the last several years in Indianapolis (and about 1,500 below the 6,000 expected per session), it didn't totally disappoint officials from either the conference or the venue.
"Through the first three days we've been pleased with how the event has been put on and how the community has embraced it," said Big Ten deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia before Sunday's championship game. "We have a process for feedback from the schools, fans and everyone involved that we'll go through now. Every year we try to improve the event, but seeing how the crowds and the community have responded, we're pleased."
The average attendance for the six sessions at the Sears Centre was 4,471, with a high of 5,505 for Saturday's semifinals and a low of 3,200 for the Thursday night session. The championship game attendance Sunday was 4,739.
The first year of the conference tournament in 1995, the average attendance in Indianapolis was 4,400, which built to an all-time high of 7,728 in 2006. The average in Indy the last five years was 6,627.
The most significant jump came for the tournament was in 2002. The tournament was held in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2001 and averaged 5,403 per session. In Indianapolis in 2002, the average jumped to 7,169 and dipped below 6,000 only once since then.
"This year was very comparable to the first year in Indy," said Traviolia. "That's a better apples-to-apples comparison."
The Sears Centre, working with Hoffman Estates and surrounding communities, tried to engage fans, both inside and outside the arena. From special activities during timeouts, halftime and between games, to fan parties in a big tent in the parking lot and autograph sessions, the goal was to keep fans involved.
"We feel it's gone well," said Sears Centre general manager Ben Gibbs before the title game. "We put a lot of time and resources into this but in the end Hoffman Estates and the Big Ten will be the judge. We had a lot to live up to but we tried to make sure people had things to do while in the Northwest Suburbs. The fan camp and autograph session were very well perceived."
For now, the plan is for the tournament to return to Sears Centre Arena in 2015. It will be in Indianapolis next year and 2016, and no venue decisions have been made beyond that.
"We're looking forward to having it back in 2015," Gibbs said. "All-in-all for a first-year event we were very pleased."
"We learned things the first day and then the second day was much smoother," said Traviolia. "We'll be in Indy next year and then we'll sit down with the Sears people and the Hoffman Estates people. In principal we want it here (in 2015) but we need to go through the process. We need to go back to the schools for their reaction, and with Hoffman Estates and the Sears Centre, did they see enough success to build on? It needs to be a win-win on both sides and a mutual agreement."
The only noticeable "kink" on Thursday was the scoreboard horn getting stuck in the on position a few times, but that was fixed. Some fans also complained the scoreboard didn't have enough information, noting most Big Ten venues offer one that includes more in-game stats.
"Indy has a full-size NBA scoreboard. We don't have that," Gibbs said. "It's hard to make a capital improvement like that for one year. We'll address things like that before 2015."
Playing for Kix:
Tournament champion Purdue certainly had emotion on its side all weekend. Boilermakers' assistant coach Terry Kix is undergoing treatment for stomach cancer and her participation was limited to home games, but she made the trip to Hoffman Estates and was on the bench with the team and head coach Sharon Versyp all weekend.
"It's very emotional," said Versyp of winning the title with Kix on the bench. "These players stepped up to another level. They're constantly looking over and when Terry was there it's the best time. When she's not there, then they worry. And for her to be here this weekend, couldn't have asked for any better celebration and exclamation point to win the tournament."
Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant would like to see the Big Ten get seven teams into the NCAA Tournament again, as the league did last year. Penn State, Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan, all with 21 wins or more, would figure to be locks with Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio State on the bubble.
"There's a lot of really good teams in our league," Merchant said after her Spartans lost to Purdue Sunday. "I hope to see six. I think last year we had seven in the tournament and I'd love to see that again but you just don't know."