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Volume 20 No. 42


So much for the saying, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us.” Apparently, there’s plenty of room in New York for both the Big East and the ACC.

One of the real curiosities in basketball circles heading into conference tournament week was how the ACC Tournament, making its first venture into Brooklyn, might affect the long-running Big East Tournament in Manhattan. Turns out the Big East, which celebrated its 35th year at Madison Square Garden, did just fine.

The Big East sold out both the finals and semifinals at MSG.
The conference’s four-day event, in its reconfigured 10-team state, drew record crowds at MSG and a record audience on Fox’s FS1 and Fox Sports Go app. It was the ideal cap on a season that culminated with seven Big East teams making the NCAA tournament field.

The Big East not only protected its turf at MSG, the conference sold more tickets and made more money from its tournament than it had since reconfiguring its membership in 2013. Ticket sales for the Big East’s opening session were up 27 percent and its second day was up 23 percent (see chart). The semifinals and finals were sellouts at 19,812, giving the Big East an average attendance of 17,544 across all of its sessions.

In all, the tournament generated 15 percent more revenue this season than last, funds that are vital to the conference because it doesn’t sponsor football.

“Internally, it wasn’t so much about protecting our turf as it was about continuing the tradition and honoring the connection between the Big East and the Garden,” said Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman. “There’s a familiarity there that’s really important to us.”

Certainly, the Big East can’t resurrect the days of since-departed Syracuse and UConn battling conference holdovers like Georgetown and Villanova. The new 10-team league is a mix of traditional Catholic institutions along the East Coast mixed with the new schools from the Midwest — Butler, Creighton and Xavier.

Big East in the Big Apple

Big East tournament attendance at Madison Square Garden

Session 2017 2016 2015
Finals 19,812 19,812 13,471
Semifinals 19,812 17,130 15,194
Quarterfinals 17,324 14,863 15,197
First round 14,830 12,604 12,588

Source: Big East Conference

But the metrics from the tournament earlier this month indicate that the reformed Big East is gaining traction, even with two of its marquee programs, Georgetown and St. John’s, mired in losing seasons.

“The new teams have really become part of the conference, more than just being members,” said Larry Jones, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of business. “It feels like they’re really invested now. Their fans showed up. It’s important that the conference is truly a 10-team conference. The atmosphere in the Garden was terrific.”

Across town at Barclays Center, the ACC’s maiden voyage into the New York market was cheered as a success. Duke and Notre Dame gave the league an attractive championship game pitting two elite programs, while ESPN touted the Duke-North Carolina semifinal as the most-watched non-championship game ever played in any conference tournament.

Capacity crowds of 18,109 for those final two nights of the ACC’s event were the largest to ever see college basketball at Barclays. The league will return to Barclays next year.

“When you think about the power six leagues in basketball, it was unprecedented to have two tournaments in the same town,” said Stu Jackson, the Big East’s senior associate commissioner for men’s basketball. “We didn’t know what the impact would be, in terms of ticket sales and sponsorship dollars. As we got closer and saw how tickets were selling, we were confident.

“It struck me that both tournaments can coexist.”

The Big East also saw some sponsorship gains around the tournament. Jeep was back as presenting sponsor, and SoFi and Motorola were on board as new sponsors. Fox runs the corporate sponsorship program.

While FS1’s TV audience doesn’t compare with ESPN’s, the Big East did see progress. Through the semifinals, the tournament on FS1 was up 11 percent over 2016 (212,000 to 191,000) and up 40 percent over 2015 (212,000 to 151,000).