Big Ten coaches, athletic directors consider starting conference basketball games earlier in December
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
CHICAGO — College basketball’s window of prominence in American sports in shrinking. As college football stretches into mid-January and the NFL playoffs reach into February, those sports overshadow the beginning of most conference basketball seasons.
Big Ten Conference officials are exploring ways to retain the college basketball audience. While the league can’t push the conference season’s start date back due to an 18-game schedule, it has another option.
Consider the scheduling practices of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Colonial Athletic Association. ACC and CAA teams play one or two conference games in mid-December. Playing earlier conference games could increase exposure for Big Ten basketball in a dead period between football conference championship games and the start of the almost month-long bowl season.
“That’s what they are looking at,” Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said Wednesday at the Big Ten spring meetings. “How do you take things out of the bowl window and move them around a little bit?”
There are other problems with the current late-December, early-January conference openers.
Families often travel between Christmas and New Year’s and do not attend games. Plus, students aren’t on campus, and that hurts the atmosphere and attendance.
Fans of college teams in football bowl games also are in transit or at warm-weather bowl sites instead of the cold, wintry Midwest.
It’s why Hollis said if the Michigan State football team qualified for the Rose Bowl, he considered moving Michigan State’s New Year’s Eve basketball home opener against Minnesota from East Lansing to downtown Los Angeles.
“We looked at Staples Center,” Hollis said. “And talked to (Lakers Executive Vice President) Jeanie Buss.”
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan coached with an early-conference-start schedule when he was at Wisconsin-Platteville. At Siena, current Iowa coach Fran McCaffery worked with a similar model.
“If they decided they wanted to do it, I’d be in favor of it,” McCaffery said. “You’d have to move some games and things like that, so sometimes it is more complicated than you think. But I think it would create interest in the first semester because you’d be playing conference games when the students are there.”
At Michigan, the Wolverines played their first two Big Ten home games against Purdue and Penn State in front of a sparse student crowd. While the school had good attendance for both games - 13,751 for Purdue, 11,771 for Penn State - students often give arenas more energy.
Any change in the conference schedule is unlikely for this season, and Big Ten Senior Associate Commissioner — Television Administration Mark Rudner said if the league changed, it likely wouldn’t happen until 2012-13.
Many schools already have the majority of their non-conference schedules completed, there is also the logistical problem of scheduling these games around exam schedules.
For instance, Ohio State and Northwestern have different finals schedules than the rest of the Big Ten because the school is on the quarter system instead of semesters. Teams usually won’t play games during final exams.
“You want to be strategic and knock it out,” Rudner said. “But there are a lot of ways we can look at it.”
But no matter what the Big Ten decides, whether to keep things the same or to split the conference season, there will be complaints and issues.
“It’s just really hard,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “So we have to be really flexible with our schedule.”