- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Cornhuskers, the Buckeyes, the Badgers and other fans who converged on Indianapolis for last year’s Big Ten tournament found, as usual, more than just basketball: There was the annual 5K run. Sports clinics for the kids. A breast cancer awareness event. Pep rallies, parties and restaurant deals galore.

This year, with the tournament in the District, the Big Ten’s mostly Midwestern fan base will have some new options: Marching for American Indian rights, rallying against the Trump immigration plan, joining a racial justice town hall or otherwise taking part in any one of the dozens of protests scheduled around the nation’s capital this weekend.

Welcome to the District of Columbia, Big Ten.

The 14-team conference is holding its championship tournament this weekend in the District for the first time, as league officials follow through on promises made three years ago, when Maryland and Rutgers joined, to extend the Big Ten’s reach to the East Coast. The conference’s weekend-long regular-season wrap-up, which had rotated between Chicago and Indianapolis over the last 20 years, moves up Interstate 95 to Madison Square Garden in New York next year.

According to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, Washington is a natural fit for the 14 schools in the Big Ten. Besides Rutgers and Maryland, which is about eight miles from this year’s Verizon Center tournament site, there’s Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska. Each of those massive mostly state schools has sent thousands of graduates over the years to Washington and other cities along the Boston-D.C. corridor. Tapping into a Big Ten alumni base — approximately 250,000-strong in Washington with another 100,000 in Baltimore and even more in the New York City area — just makes sense over the long haul, Mr. Delany has said.

“I think it’s just a strong statement that we’ve expanded,” he said. “It’s different, but I think it’s important to us to express to the people of Maryland and at Rutgers and at Penn State that we truly want to live in two regions. Our presidents and athletic directors and coaches agreed. We could have waited five or 10 years, but we thought we should do it now. It’s like anything else: If you wait until it’s convenient, you might be waiting a long time.

“Also, our schools receive about $11 billion for research annually, so we do a lot of work in Washington,” he said in a statement from the conference. “And the media capital of the world is up and down that corridor. So there are a lot of reasons for us to be there, and if you’re going to be there, you might as well really be there.”

Over the short term, breaking into a D.C. sports market dominated by four professional franchises might be tougher than league officials had anticipated.

The tournament was a sellout or near-sellout in recent years in both Indianapolis and Chicago, but that’s not likely to be the case this weekend. Officials haven’t released ticket tales information, but Wednesday afternoon’s Nebraska-Penn State tournament opener took place before a half-empty arena and tickets for Friday, Saturday and Sunday games are going at discount rates on the secondary ticket market.

Penn State student Craig Day, 18, said he and friends found tickets online and decided to drive down from York, Pennsylvania, Wednesday.

“The tickets were really cheap. We only paid $7. I’m pretty disappointed there are more Nebraska fans here since Penn State is much closer to D.C. It’s pretty empty. I feel like I’m the only one here sometimes,” Mr. Day said.

Lincoln, Nebraska, real estate agent Stephanie Taylor, 50, attended the tournament in Indianapolis last year, and she was all for coming to the District of Columbia this year. “We flew down from Lincoln. It’s not a bad crowd considering the season we have had,” she said. “I like that it’s in D.C. this year. It’s a bigger city and there is much more to do when the games aren’t going on. We will definitely take in some of the history here.”The Maryland Terrapins, ranked in the Top 25 nationally and seeded third in the conference, are expected to draw more local fans for their first tournament game Friday night — and a deep run undoubtedly would beef up attendance.

Indianpolis officials have bragged that the tournament generates more than $10 million worth of economic impact for their city. District officials hope to see a figure similar to the $24 million in economic impact the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament brought to the District last year, when Maryland’s former conference held its tournament.

To get that kind of impact, the Big Ten is going to need more Washington-area fans, like Annapolis teacher Tim Poole, 44, who saw the tournament as the perfect way to spend a few spring afternoons in the city.

“We got tickets to every game,” Mr. Poole said. “It’s something fun to do I’m a Penn State fan today. Tomorrow I’ll be an Indiana fan and on Friday I’ll root for Maryland. There are more people here than I thought there would be — it’s fun to interact with the fans of different teams.”

• David Eldridge can be reached at deldridge@washingtontimes.com.

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