The Pac-10 Men’s Basketball Tournament: A Time to Rethink

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The Pac-10 Conference continues its overhaul in the effort to equal its BCS colleagues’ revenue hauls by hiring Dannette Leighton, formerly of Maloof Sports & Entertainment, as the conference’s first ever Chief Marketing Officer. This move follows a couple of major personnel changes at the conference’s Walnut Creek offices, including the naming of Larry Scott as the new commissioner and Kevin Weiberg as deputy commissioner.

The challenges facing these new hires in the coming years are daunting, from conference expansion and football championship games to the new television/media agreement due up for bid in about a year. Yet, come next week, these executives will encounter yet another ill conference entity that needs help.

The Pacific Life Pac-10 Tournament takes place next week at Staples Center, and under some rather unusual circumstances. The usual 10-team party will be without USC, due to its self-imposed postseason ban, and given the conference’s exceedingly poor strength this season, only the tournament champion appears to be ticketed for the NCAA tournament. One would think that the latter would make the tournament a great attendance draw, but the way the tournament has been promoted (or not) will probably get in the way of that.

What the Pac-10 should desire is the conference tournament experience of most other major conferences, as well as some mid-major ones. On the major conference side, the Big East Tournament has traditionally been a consistent draw, so much so that tickets aren’t even sold via Madison Square Garden’s ticket office (you’ve got to be a high-level donor at most of the Big East schools to even have the right to buy tickets). 

The ACC finally had a public sale of tournament tickets for the first time in 30-odd years, after only making them available to each school to sell to its platinum donors, no matter the site. On the mid-major side, the West Coast Conference recently abandoned its on-campus tradition and moved its tournament to the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.  Thanks to a destination city and heavy promotion, the tournament successfully sold out last year, and the conference wisely signed on for a multi-year deal to have the tournament remain in Vegas.

Eight years after its return, the Pac-10 tournament still hasn’t reached that level, and there are a lot of reasons for that. The current generation of fans still hasn’t warmed to the concept of a tournament after so many years of just regular season play determining the automatic NCAA bid. Also, the tournament doesn’t seem to have the “party atmosphere” that defines most other conference tournament experiences. 

I remember from my days working in the Big West Conference that the annual tournament in Anaheim was much less a competition than it was an excuse to party. In addition, until recently, the hotel and gathering locations for fans at the Pac-10 tournament weren’t exactly centralized. The construction of LA Live! around Staples Center seeks to alleviate that, but the effect remains to be seen, especially given the fact that most of L.A.’s tourism draw is outside of downtown.

Despite this, the Pac-10 still seems to be trying the cram the tournament down the fans’ throats. I’ve gotten about six phone calls from Staples Center ticket staff members trying to sell me tickets, but I haven’t seen the kind of promotion necessary to justify the expense for tickets and the trip to LA, especially in this economy when people are tighter with their dollars. 

 

So what are some things the conference can do to help create the value needed for this marquee event to get the attendance it deserves?

1.) Re-price and Re-design ticket packages:

Let’s face it, you’re not going to get away with selling only all-session passes for $250+, especially when fans aren’t likely to watch sessions their teams aren’t playing in and will probably look to jump town once their teams are eliminated. Instead, create team-specific tickets that charge only for the games in which your team is playing. You pay for tickets for all the sessions, but only when your ticket is read by the bar code scanner are you actually charged. Once your team is eliminated, the rest of your ticket bar codes are deactivated and your money is refunded. 

Secondly, remember also that this tournament could be a draw in the fact that it’s one of the few times during the year when you can watch a basketball game at Staples Center without paying an arm and a leg for tickets (well, save for Clipper games, but that’s another issue). To that end, I see no point in charging more than $60 for the best seats in the arena, with an ideal average of $20-30 per ticket for most of the arena.  The attendance numbers for this tournament are nowhere near capacity, and as a result, the Pac-10 shouldn’t charge like every other major conference does for tickets to the basketball tournament.

2.) Consider moving the tournament around to see which locales work best:

Don’t get me wrong, LA is great, and I see the logic in trying to make Staples Center the Madison Square Garden of the West. But there are inherent issues in having a tournament like this in LA, from negotiating around the other three tenants in Staples Center to the setup of hotels and transportation in and around the area.  If you look at where the other big conferences have their tournaments, the cities are usually destination cities with hotel and gathering clusters within easy access to the arena. So it may be in the Pac-10′s interest to try other major cities in the conference footprint to host the tournament. Some that come to mind are:

  • Key Arena, Seattle: A city starved for big-time basketball since the departure of the Sonics. Not too appealing weather-wise, but still a good gathering city that will certainly welcome the tournament with open arms.
  • Rose Garden, Portland: Can’t say I’ve been, but if the NCAA thought it a worthy enough site for first and second round games, it should be able to sustain the Pac-10 tournament.
  • Oracle Arena, Oakland: On the list because it’s an NBA arena, but hotel clusters and gathering places are hard to come by in the not-so-desirable areas surrounding Oracle Arena. Perhaps a minor reason why after the 2006 NCAA Oakland Regional, the NCAA has no plans of returning.
  • HP Pavilion, San Jose: In my opinion, the better of the two Bay Area sites. The arena is accessible via multiple public transit lines, and with several hotels nearby and San Pedro Square within close proximity, this site has good prospects. The NCAA is a regular visitor, and you can see why.
  • US Airways Center, Phoenix: With warm weather and spring training in full swing in the area, Phoenix could be a great draw for the tournament. Furthermore, if the conference can get on a winning attendance streak with the tournament, University of Phoenix Stadium could be considered as a site.

3.) Create more event tie-ins with the tournament:

The prospect of travelling a long way to see your team lose one game is not terribly appealing. But, if there are other events happening in the are that you’d be interested in attending, the expense could be justified.

Now the truth is that the ideal event to make that happen is different for each conference. They could be anything from a music concert to a big party, or even a career fair for students (the latter I think is one of the most recently effective options, especially if you’re trying to boost student attendance). 

The point of the matter is that the conference needs to create value in the conference tournament experience, especially for an audience that, as mentioned earlier, still hasn’t completely bought into the concept of a conference basketball tournament.

 

 

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