As we move through Championship Week and fully into March Madness, the sense of underdog success permeates the air. It is totally unlike the big-time sports business feel of college football, which generates millions for select schools competing at the highest levels, but has little of the mystery and mystique of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.
The pre-amble to that drama are the conference tournaments, now spread across several rights-holding networks (NBC, Fox, CBS and ESPN) and held in tourist locales like Las Vegas (which the legal gambling-averse allows without issue) as well as longtime like St. Louis (for the Missouri Valley’s “Arch Madness” and Greensboro for the ACC Tournament on a semi-annual basis). However the one tournament to consistently call the media and sales capital of the world home, The Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, is undergoing a transformation of its own. While still billed as a sellout, the conference and its new TV partner in Fox has taken to the subways and the busses with ad campaigns explaining the members and the event to its casual fans, something unneeded and unheard of in previous years. It is smart to do so; the league should take nothing for granted, especially with some of its newer members from cities like Omaha and Indianapolis, with far smaller alumni groups within driving distance like former members Notre Dame, Syracuse and Connecticut. Still the Big East calls MSG home, and will use the event to showcase its brands and its high quality hoops to both existing and new potential partners who may never get to go an experience the home court at Hinkle Fieldhouse or even The Bradley Center in Milwaukee, let alone Xavier’s Cintas Center or the new future downtown home of the DePaul Blue Demons. It is a great showcase and celebration for a college sports brand in transition. Change as we have seen on college sports is constant.
So will the Big East, now in transition with new geographic faces, stay in Gotham, and should it? All last fall, conference like the Big Ten and the ACC constantly visit New York and all its business trappings, talking about the power of the college football brand to a city and a fan base that remains basketball centric. Yes thousands flock to pubs and houses to watch college football at the highest level, but it has nowhere near the street cred, and the longstanding ties to casual fans, that basketball has. The distant allure of Rutgers, the pageantry of Army, even the claims by Syracuse of being “New York’s College Team,” are still gridiron stretches, and very hard to consistently maintain. Yes brands love college football, as do millions of fans, but in New York it is still second fiddle to hoops.
What does that mean for the marketing opportunities of the ACC and The Big Ten, or heck maybe even the SEC down the road? Could they use their postseason college basketball tournaments as a lure to further infiltrate Madison Avenue year round? Absolutely, and that day will probably come sooner rather than later. Despite all the genteel agreements college sports we know is big business, and to consistently showcase your best of the best in New York is critical to get to the next level. The ACC now probably has more big ticket sellers in basketball in New York…Syracuse, Duke, Notre dame, North Carolina, even Pittsburgh and on a good year Boston College…than any league including The Big East, and that flow of cash is what makes MSG shine, much more than tradition than ever before. Those football schools also bring a carryover to brands for college basketball, something which the non-football playing Big East schools struggle to do, and that year-round presence with an active college community is a brand’s golden ticket. The Big Ten is not that far behind, and with large fan bases from schools like Michigan and Wisconsin in the New York area, laying an occasional claim to Gotham also makes great sense for an occasional March rotation.
So where does that leave the Big East of the future? That remains to be seen. Does the move of the tournament occasionally to a market like basketball-crazed Indianapolis or even Washington, DC or make more sense for the new geography? Would “tradition” go by the wayside without the call to MSG every early March? Would new brands in other locales embrace the change as progressive thinking instead of a kick in the pants out of town? All of those options are in the offing, along with the ancillary possibility of the nearby Barclays Center or even the state of the art Prudential Center getting in the mix, much like Barclays has tried with the Atlantic 10 Tournament with some degree of success. Still for all its internal and media issues, Madison Square Garden is still the Holy Grail, one which the private schools of the Big East have fought to hold on to for now. It is the brightest light, the biggest stage, and one, as the business of college basketball continues to bounce, will get even more alluring and more coveted for others as dollar and brand value rise on a national scale. New York may not be the home of big time college football all the time, but for big time college sports business having that center stake in the ground to market and entertain and activate around is perhaps more valuable than ever.
Who will win out? Can all of the leagues win out by rotating? Remains to be seen but as we have understood all too well in recent years, dollars rule the big campuses more than ever, whether that is in September or March.