The 2022 New York Life ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament is being held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Big Ten is playing its tournament in Indianapolis. The SEC is in Tampa. Growing conference footprints and the desire to reflect that expanded membership has resulted in conference tournaments increasingly bouncing around in recent years (next year the ACC, B1G and SEC will play in Greensboro, Chicago and Nashville, respectively).
But not the Big East Conference Tournament (BET). The Big East is playing its postseason basketball championship at Madison Square Garden for the 40th consecutive year (the semifinal doubleheader will take place this evening). When asked why the Big East has opted to take a different path, commissioner Val Ackerman said, “The durability of the tournament [has become] a point of pride and a differentiator for the conference.” Playing at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” also allows the Big East to maximize the revenues associated with the annual tournament. It’s been estimated that nearly 20% of the conference’s annual revenue is tied to the BET (see: $10-$13 million of ~$64 million in 2018).
JWS’ Take: When the Big East was reconfigured in 2013, it took on contractual obligations for the right to play the men’s basketball tournament at MSG through 2026, with early opt-out provisions. “But after the first few years, once it was demonstrated that we could carry our weight in terms of the kind of [sell-out] event the Garden was looking for,” Ackerman said the conference was able to negotiate an extension through 2028. The new deal also eliminated two early termination provisions (meaning the BET is certain to be at MSG for at least six more seasons).
Prior to inking the extension with the Garden in late 2018, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney and ACC commissioner John Swafford reached out to Ackerman to see if the Big East would consider rotating out of MSG, on occasion, so that their respective conferences could play there. It is not clear what they were prepared to offer to entice Ackerman and Co. to give up the Garden during the second week of March. She said the conversations “never got that far, because we had no interest in even entertaining the idea. We were not interested in having a Big East tournament anyplace other than MSG.”
That’s not to say the BET couldn’t or wouldn’t be successful elsewhere—at least in terms of tickets sold. “Our Midwest schools draw very well,” Ackerman pointed out. Creighton ranked sixth in attendance nationally, Marquette was 18th and Xavier finished 35th. But even those schools prefer to keep the event at MSG. “They’ve said to us, don’t move [the venue]. Keep it at MSG. That is where the coaches and players they’re recruiting want to finish out the season.”
The Big East could probably save money by playing the BET just about anywhere other than MSG. But Ackerman says the conference’s investment in the costly venue pays off in the end. “If you look at the revenues we bring in from ticket sales, [the dollars] attributable to the 10 games of the tournament in our media rights contract, what we do by way of sponsorship sales and merchandising, it is more than a net positive for the league to have the event [at the Garden].”
Fox likes that the Big East plays its annual tournament at MSG (because of the big event feel associated with the venue). But the conference’s media rights payout would not change if the conference moved its basketball championship to another big city within the footprint.
The same could not be said for BET ticketing (seats can be sold for a premium in New York) and sponsorship revenue. While conference sponsorship pacts typically span all 22 championship events, “the activation is very much concentrated on this event,” Ackerman said. Sponsors may not embrace the BET the way they do if it were held elsewhere.
It is not clear how Big East Tournament revenue stacks up comparatively to the Power Five conferences. A bit more clarity exists on BET financials because there is no football championship revenue muddying their tax filings (note: the sponsorship and TV revenue associated with the conference tournament must also be accounted for).
The league was also savvy enough to add communicable diseases coverage to its event cancellation policy several years ago. As a result, it was able to collect on lost tournament revenue the last two years. Sportico reported the Big East recovered $10.5 million for the 2020 tournament (which was canceled after 2.5 games) and another $4.5 million on the ’21 edition (which was played without fans due to an executive order in NYC). The reporting on those payouts has helped to contextualize the value of the BET.
Revenue aside, having the Big East Tournament at MSG benefits the member schools from a fundraising standpoint. “Our schools are bringing in their top alums [to New York City] and have a whole host of events that cultivate interest in their program,” Ackerman said. Those events typically charge per head and portions of the proceeds are given to the athletic department.
Seton Hall director of athletics Bryan Felt said the “other side of the fundraising concept around the tournament is that all of our schools have alumni who live in NYC or the surrounding area [and everyone wants to go]. The opportunity to have a high demand for tickets to the games, combined with supportive alumni in the region, is a help to fundraising efforts.” Seton Hall (and many other schools) may not see the same booster demand if the games were played in another city.
The Big East commissioner said she expects the BET to remain at MSG well beyond 2028.
(This story has been updated to correct the location of the SEC tournament.)