Friday, December 19, 2008

Columbus To Host '09 Conference Tourney

I didn't see this one coming. Yesterday, the Big Ten Conference announced it's going to hold the 2009 conference baseball tournament at a neutral site. Huntington Park, the home of the Columbus Clippers, will host next year's conference tournament. I'm pleasantly surprised.

Regular readers of BTH will confirm that I've lobbied for a neutral site conference tournament for about as long as I've run this blog. The reasons for my desire for a neutral site venue are numerous, but let me allow Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany's comments from the press release highlight a few of them.

“Moving the baseball tournament to a neutral site will allow the conference office and the local organizing committee to promote this event throughout the season. In addition, playing at an outstanding facility like Huntington Park will enhance the experience for our student-athletes, coaches and fans. We’re looking forward to the first pitch of the tournament in May.”

I couldn't agree more. I can't believe I just agreed with Jim Delany. I must have spent too much time out plowing snow today. Regardless, having the conference's regular season champion host the tournament was a logistics nightmare for all the programs. Knowing where the tournament will be and not placing such a large burden on the host school's athletic department should be warmly greeted by everyone across the Big Ten.

While this seemed like an obvious move to me, and quite a few others, I was told routinely that such a transition wasn't on the horizon. What changed the thinking around Chicago? Here's my guess.

This move was motivated by the conference's new baby -- the Big Ten Network. As the conference now operates a television network, they need live programming. Let me re-phrase that just a bit. They desperately need programming. The conference baseball tournament could be one of those live events, but the conference simply cannot afford to have a university host the tournament when their ballpark doesn't have lights. No lights = no television. That's not an equation the Big Ten Network embraces.

In addition, I can't imagine the conference would want to broadcast their premier baseball event from a glorified junior high school ball field -- with or without lights. It is kind of quaint to see such simple surroundings for college baseball, but as we heard in the marketing days of old, image is everything. I doubt anyone in the Big Ten office really wants the rest of the nation to see just how limited some of the program's baseball facilities really are. (Yes, most are improving, but not all are up to par quite yet.)

The bottom line appears to be this. In order to maximize their product's (both BTN and baseball) visibility and reputation, the conference office conceded to common sense and moved the baseball tournament to a neutral site. Whatever the rationale, it's still a good, long overdue move and one I whole-heartedly applaud.

Now, before the comments and email starting popping up, let me say that this plan isn't perfect. Many will rightly argue that having the tournament in Columbus is a home game for Ohio State regardless of what field in the city they play upon. I can't disagree.

Would I have preferred -- strictly from a perception standpoint -- the tournament being held in Toledo, Dayton, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids or some other slightly more truly neutral location? Yes. However, I'm thinking the Columbus folks might have made a bigger, better pitch for the event than anyone else. Quite possibly, they made the only pitch for the event.

Let's not toss the baby out with the bathwater here. There's no mention of anything beyond 2009, so I'm going with the notion that another host city can be found in the future. Yes, it's in OSU's backyard next year, but that doesn't mean a neutral site championship isn't a good idea.

I also do have concerns about attendance if Ohio State gets eliminated from the tournament early or if, cover your eyes my Buckeye friends, they don't make the field at all. However, that's the case even if the regular season champion hosts the tournament. If the home team is out, attendance drops dramatically. Columbus is centrally located in the conference's geographic footprint, so I'm hoping that will make travel more appealing to fans across the region, thus minimizing some of that affect.

First, the conference disposed of those seven-inning Saturday doubleheaders I disliked in favor of a single nine inning game. Now, after years of my complaining about it, they've opted for a neutral site conference tournament host. The Big Ten has eliminated two of my biggest pet peeves about the way it runs it's baseball schedule. I wonder what should I campaign for next?