The Big 12 basketball tournament isn’t like other conference tournaments, but that makes sense, because the Big 12 isn’t like other conferences.
To understand why, we need to go back a few years, when realignment blew everything up
On June 12th, 2010, the University of Nebraska launched the first salvo when they announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten. Shortly thereafter, Colorado announced it was also on its way out after almost 65 years in the league to head to the Pac-10.
Then came the Longhorn Network. Once plans had been announced to create a new ESPN network dedicated to the University of Texas, Texas A&M reacted by promptly bolting for the SEC. Missouri quickly followed.
The Big 12 added TCU, a private school dead in the middle of the Big 12 footprint that had a ton of football success in smaller conferences, and West Virginia, a Big East school with historical success in both football and basketball.
At least just as importantly, the Big 12 had landed a media deal with ESPN and Fox to broadcast every Big 12 conference football and men’s basketball game. Unlike the Big Ten, SEC, ACC (eventually), and Pac-12, the Big 12 didn’t have a dedicated network, but it had the TV deal it needed to ensure stability for the immediate future, but even then, the league dealt with expansion or other realignment rumors for years. BYU, Cincinnati, UCF, USF, Houston, Colorado State, Louisville, Arizona, and Arizona State, and at least a half dozen others have all been rumored to the league at some level.
Because of all these rumors, and with uncertainty about what TV might look like after this round of contracts expires, many voices outside the conference see instability or chaos in the league’s future. That’s not the way folks inside the league, be it fans or administrators, see things.
For starters, football is and always will be king, and the Big 12 boasts two of the most powerful brands in college football in Texas and Oklahoma. In basketball, the conference still retains arguably the most powerful brand in college hoops in Kansas, as well as a handful of historically and intermittently successful programs. The conference is perennially deep, with sometimes up to 80% of the conference earning NCAA Tournament bids, and usually at least a few of those making it to the second weekend.
And despite not having a conference network, it isn’t hard to find their games on TV.
Take, for example, a school like TCU, an unquestionable program-on-the-rise, but also one that finished 8th in the conference in 2018-2019 and doesn’t have a ton of basketball tradition to fall back on (apologies to our Frogs O’ War friends). How many of their conference games were on a network other than ESPN, ESPN2, FS1 or ESPNU (all of which are available on most or all basic or extended basic cable packages)? Just one.
With ESPNU essentially becoming the pseudo “Big 12 Network,” almost any college basketball fan can catch just about any Big 12 game they could possibly want to watch without having to pay for a premium cable package or streaming service. The other major conferences all have media rights packages that require a certain amount of games for each team to be broadcast on their dedicated network. Ask Pac-12 fans how that feels.
However, even excellent TV exposure doesn’t matter if the product isn’t good. But Big 12 basketball is great.
The round robin schedule produces tremendous familiarity between the teams, resulting in a “true” conference champion that had to play every single team both home and away, unlike most power leagues.
Combine the familiarity and competitiveness of every game with the star power we see in the Big 12 like Trey Young, Buddy Hield, Georges Niang, Monte Morris, Jevon Carter, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and whatever 8-foot-tall freshman center Texas is trotting out that year, and you have an extremely attractive product that just about everyone from Sarasota to Seattle can watch whenever they want.
And the best place to watch all that talent at once is the Big 12 Tournament. And the best place to hold that tournament is Kansas City
The Big 12 conference tournaments have long made their home in Kansas City, going all the way back through the days of the old Big 8, where the finals were held at Kemper Arena every single year from 1977 to 1996 when the conference merged with the SWC.
In an effort to move the tournament around to allow different cities to bid on and host the tournament, as well as cater to the newer members of the conference from Texas, the Big 12 sent the men’s basketball championship to American Airlines Arena in Dallas for the 2003, 2004, and 2006 tournaments.
The quality of play was as high as ever, but Dallas as a tournament host received mixed reviews.
“There wasn’t interest. You were in (Dallas), and you couldn’t even tell the tournament was going on,” said Iowa State Assistant Athletics Director Mike Green.
Dallas is a big city that loves its pro sports, which dominate talk radio and local news coverage in a way that Dallas-Fort Worth-area universities like SMU and TCU probably never will.
“I was driving back, and I remember just listening to sports talk radio on my way back, the Dallas stations, and never once did the Big 12 Tournament come up,” said Iowa State Director of Broadcasting and Cyclone Radio Play-by-Play Announcer John Walters. “It was all ‘Terrell Owens did this today.’ It was all about the Cowboys.”
The Dallas-Fort Worth metro, much like basically every other major metropolitan area, has all of the resources anyone could ask for to host an extremely successful and vibrant conference tournament; it just doesn’t care enough to do so.
So, after making the mistake of moving the tournament to Dallas, the Big 12 sent the tournament to Oklahoma City’s Ford Center for the 2007 and 2009 tournaments.
The 2007 tournament was generally considered a success, but the lack of lodging options near the arena did make it somewhat inconvenient for visiting fans that weren’t fortunate enough to land a reservation at the one of the two hotels located within walking distance of the arena.
In 2008, the tournament headed back to Kansas City to the all-new Sprint Center. The arena was aesthetically pleasing, and situated across the street from another newly-built attraction, the Power & Light District. What may have been intended as a trial run to test out the new arena ended becoming a love affair between a conference, fans, and the city.
The 2008 tournament was also boosted by tons of star power, especially from the “local” schools of Kansas and Kansas State. The Jayhawks were the defending national champions, and Kansas State’s Michael Beasley was absolutely tearing apart the conference on the way to Big 12 Player of the Year Honors and a spot on numerous 1st-Team All-American lists. D.J. Augustin had led the ‘Horns to a top-ten ranking, and Texas A&M brought a talented freshman named DeAndre Jordan. Oklahoma freshman Blake Griffin turned out to be a decent player as well.
Since 2010, the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Tournament has been held at the Sprint Center in Kansas City every year. Thanks to the location, lodging, fan support and more, the tournament has grown into one of the biggest events of the entire year for the Kansas City metro.
Another significant gift Kansas City provided was a cushion to soften the blow when Missouri, historically a great program situated just less than two hours from Kansas City, left the conference. In fact, it was such a good cushion, that, from the tournament’s perspective, the Big 12 Conference hardly even noticed the Tigers had left.
“Obviously Missouri back in the old days with the Big 8…had a good showing,” said Green. “When they left, I didn’t notice it dropping off. Moving the tournament to Oklahoma City and Dallas was a bigger change than when Missouri left.”
While the Big 12 didn’t necessarily replace Missouri one-for-one with another basketball school, the addition did add another passionate fan-base and a quality basketball program that could bridge the gap.
“Certainly, not having Missouri around hurts a bit of the tradition and rivalries, but otherwise there is no drop off,” said Cyclone Fanatic contributor and Cyclone Women’s Basketball Radio Play-by-Play Announcer Brent Blum. “West Virginia’s fan-base is actually more spirited than Colorado, Texas A&M’s or Nebraska’s former Big 12 Basketball presence.”
Another crucial on-court development which helped to mask Mizzou’s departure was the resurrection of Iowa State’s basketball program to the top tier of the Big 12. With the Cyclones becoming competitive at the very top of the conference, the tournament saw a huge influx from a fan-base known for traveling well that happens to be situated just a few hours north on I-35.
The numbers back up the notions of the tournament being an enormous success as well. In 2018, the tournament averaged 17,850 fans per session (94% of capacity), and Iowa State was knocked out in the first round, so many Cyclone fans didn’t stay long past Thursday. If we look back to 2017 when the Cyclones won the Tournament Championship, the event averaged 18,854 fans per session, essentially 100% of the Sprint Center’s total capacity of 18,972. This in-person attendance directly feeds into the success of the television broadcasts.
The Big 12 also enjoys uncommon camaraderie among the member schools, making fans more likely to stay for the whole tournament. Fans are all perfectly happen to rib each other during the season when they play each other, but when national commentators or fan-bases from outside the conference chime in to criticize the Big 12, it’s not uncommon to see people jump to the defense of their Big 12 sibling. Just ask a Big 12 fan about the league “not playing defense” during football season.
Within this tight-knit family that will definitely cut anyone that makes fun of it besides the family itself, is a collection of quirky personalities that make it unique and entertaining.
First, you have Texas and Oklahoma, one of which has the money and exposure to run the conference off-the-field, and the other which has the consistent on-field success to actually do so. I’ll let you guess which one is which.
Then you have Kansas, which proudly doesn’t give a shit about anything besides basketball because they don’t have to.
Kansas State and Iowa State are basically the same school, with almost no discernible difference in (lack of) football or (actually decent) basketball success. The main difference would be Iowa State’s status as the third-best wrestling program in history (after Oklahoma State and Iowa State’s little brother to the east), and Kansas State having the superior meat-judging team. The annual football game between the two is called “Farmageddon,” which is the best rivalry name in college football and you can’t convince me otherwise.
Oklahoma State is basically the Oklahoma of Big 12 wrestling that usually fields a decent-to-really good football team. Plus, they’re pretty cool people to drink with.
Texas Tech is a track & field/football school plopped out in the middle of an armadillo’s living room in West Texas that’s good enough to be dangerous near the top of the standings most years in either football or basketball, just never at the same time.
TCU is somewhat new to the conference, but they fit in well geographically, and all of their rich alumni have badass football tailgating rigs. They also have fans that simultaneously care more and less about their teams than any other school in the conference.
West Virginia fits the conference really well in basically every way except location, in which they fit horribly. Their football team is usually entertaining to watch, and their basketball team is the inspiration for Jon Rothstein’s best Rothsteinism.
West Virginia. Tougher than a long weekend at your in-laws.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 7, 2019
Also, Iowa State and West Virginia play a football game every year for the prestigious and completely legitimate Riot Can trophy.
Baylor is also a member of the conference.
In a way, Kansas City’s near-perfect manifestation of the Big 12’s band of plucky-but-loveable misfits is exactly what makes it such a perfect host city for the conference tournament.
Being on the border of two states that an alarming amount of high schoolers on the coasts probably can’t point to on a map, KC doesn’t get the recognition it deserves as a far-above average tourist destination in America’s heartland.
However, the Kansas City Sports Commission is looking to change that by showing everybody that visits for the tournament exactly what makes this city so special in the way it embraces the tournament as the one of the premier annual events in the city.
Like pretty much anywhere else that hosts large sporting events like a conference tournament, Kansas City is home to a few pro sports teams, but there’s an argument to be made that Kansas City is really a basketball town that simply doesn’t have a pro basketball team. Kansas City has hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any other city, and was home to the NBA’s Kansas City Kings from 1972 to 1985 before losing the franchise to Sacramento.
Fortunately, the Big 12 Tournament fills that void for them.
“Things like the Big 12 Basketball Championship keep us on the map. Each event we host brings another person to the city. They think ‘I had so much fun, I wonder what it would be like to go to a Chiefs game in October’,” said Kathy Nelson, Director of the KC Sports Commission. “To come in and out of the lobbies of the hotels and to see all the décor, the energy, and the signage, it’s just pretty special to know that everyone here in our city is ready to embrace the fans.”
And the fans embrace it too.
“It’s amazing to me how many people are here within a four block radius of the Sprint Center that don’t have a ticket that are here celebrating great college basketball.”
Another enormous factor that makes Kansas City such a perfect location is its proximity to the conference’s premier basketball fan-bases in Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State, all of which all have a 3 1⁄2 hour drive or less to KC. Sure, just about everybody in the Big 12 has contended at the top at one point or another, but many of the teams in Oklahoma and Texas don’t send large contingents of fans to the tournament no matter how good their team is.
“Having the tournament in KC allows the three most passionate basketball fan-bases in the conference to be in close proximity. As long as Kansas, Iowa State and Kansas State are relevant the atmosphere will continue to thrive,” said Blum.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Big 12 Tournament is a huge revenue boost for the city, as it results in roughly $12-14 million of total economic impact depending on which teams (read: Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State) advance further in the tournament.
So, what keeps the fans around when they don’t have a ticket or their team has already been knocked out?
First and foremost is the famed Power & Light District across the street from the Sprint Center. The downtown nightlife hub houses 34 different restaurants and bars, ranging from barbecue joints, to Irish pubs, to a Burger King Whopper Bar, to a Howl at the Moon piano bar, none of which you can prove that I have ever been kicked out of before walking a mile and a half back to an hourly motel with a vibrating bed.
If you’re not much for the nightlife or you brought the kids along, Grand Boulevard between the Sprint Center and Power & Light District is closed down, and has a ton of different activities that are perfect for families, including a bunch of basketball hoops to shoot baskets at, as well the College Basketball Experience.
“When you can create a situation where the people that attend the event don’t have to drive anywhere…that’s the ideal situation,” said Walters.
If you’d like to get away from downtown, Westport and the Plaza both offer some really unique shopping and dining experiences that you can’t find down by the Power & Light District.
Did I forget to mention the barbecue? Much like Big 12 football, the Deep South tends to scoff at Kansas City-style barbecue, often saying it’s too sweet and doesn’t know how to properly defend underneath routes by slot receivers. As someone that’s tried lots of different styles of barbecue (and tends to lean towards the Carolina vinegar sauces), Kansas City burnt ends deserve consideration for best regional signature dish. This has been my TED Talk.
In fact, the Kansas City Sports Commission holds an annual barbecue competition between the schools, and this year is holding another competition for the public that will actually award points that will count towards qualification for the national competition.
Finally, if you’re one of the psychopaths that actually enjoys running, there’s a 12K race on Saturday morning where everyone dresses up in school colors. I will not be participating.
All of these factors come together to create what has become without a doubt the most entertaining, engaging, and vibrant conference tournament experience in the country.
The best news? The tournament isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and the atmosphere will only get better.
Not only is the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Tournament scheduled to take place at the Sprint Center until at least 2024, but the Women’s Basketball Tournament will also be held in Kansas City at the Municipal Arena in the Kansas City Convention Center, which is just a short walk away from the Power & Light District.
However, none of this means the Big 12 isn’t keeping an eye around its footprint for other potential host cities.
“You want to keep the tournament vibrant, and have a competitive bid process as well, it’s beneficial to move the championship around periodically so that other cities have the opportunity to bid on it,” said Big 12 Associate Commissioner in Communications Bob Burda. “A lot of other cities see the success of the event and want to host themselves, put their best foot forward, and, for that week, be the center of the college basketball universe.”
Within the Big 12 footprint, cities like Dallas, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Des Moines have all been considered as possible future destinations for the tournament.
In the end, though, the Big 12 knows what kind of treasure it has with Kansas City.
“We’ve got a great relationship with Kansas City, and their Sports Commission does a fantastic job. They’ve got the infrastructure, decades of experience in hosting this event...there’s great synergy with all of the elements with staging this event. We’re all working together with the goal of making this, bar none, the best conference tournament in the country.”
In a conference known for instability and uncertainty, and the age of increasing numbers of stale, lifeless conference tournaments and neutral site non-conference games, the Big 12 Tournament stands as a beacon of everything that’s great about college basketball, and a lesson university and conference administrators across the country could stand to learn.
If you focus on the connection between the conference and its schools and fans, and you work to cultivate and grow those relationships, you can create an event and culture capable of standing out in places they had no business doing so.
The Big 12 has done that, and created the single best fan experience in college basketball, and maybe college athletics as a whole. One so successful that it turned a wave of realignment that could have (and maybe should have) killed it into a strength that can be leaned on going forward.