The eighth game of this most recent incarnation of the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament is just half over at the time I’m writing this column, but it has already reminded us just what makes a conference tournament so special.
Last night’s four matchups were just about as good as they could get. Underdog Oregon State, the only team still alive below the top eight, knocked off No. 1 seed Washington. Arizona and UCLA, who dominated the conference in the 1990s, went to the final minutes of the Wildcats’ 66-58 win with the game still up in the air. Archrivals Stanford and Cal, going blow-for-blow for 40 minutes, faced each other for the third time in a season for the first time since 1990.
Conference tournaments have become something of a given in college basketball, with every conference besides the Ivy League—which is still living in the dark ages, sans athletic scholarships—holding one each year. But that wasn’t always the case, and the then-Pac-10 departed from the tournament format between 1991 and 2001, with the regular-season conference champion getting the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in lieu of a conference-tourney winner.
When the Pac-10 Tournament was re-instituted in 2002 by an 8-2 vote—Stanford and Arizona, who had been on top of the conference for four years at that point, were the only naysayers—the idea was to make it “a major attraction on the Pacific Coast,” according to the Pac-10’s October 2000 release. And since just about everyone in the conference had a chance to make it to the Big Dance—the tournament was expanded from eight to 10 teams with the addition of a play-in round in 2006—regardless of regular-season performance, the Pac-10 Tournament had all the makings of an exciting display of West Coast basketball.
But in recent years it has become a poorly attended event that attracted just 12,000 spectators to 19,000-seat Staples Center last season for the finals, despite its fair share of exciting action. The championship game has been decided by four or fewer points in each of the last four years, and three times in the last 10 seasons, a team seeded fourth or worse has taken home the conference title.
This year’s tournament looked to be one of the most wide-open in conference history, with Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins saying that the Cardinal and “11 other teams” all had a legitimate shot at competing. After top-seeded Washington was eliminated last night the championship is still completely up for grabs, and the entertainment value seems as high as ever. But only 6,747 fans were in attendance for Wednesday’s opening games and the stands still looked pretty empty last night, even for the game between in-state schools Stanford and Cal.
If anything, the stakes are higher in the Pac-12 Tournament this year with so many teams fighting for at-large bids to the Big Dance, but fans still aren’t flocking to L.A. for the four days of games.
Because of the ailing attendance, the conference has been forced to consider leaving the prominent Southern California market in search of a better venue—announced by Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott on Wednesday—as Los Angeles’ bid for the event comes to an end this season. One of the leading contenders is Las Vegas of all places, over 250 miles away from the nearest Pac-12 school, USC. That doesn’t exactly seem like the right answer to increasing attendance, unless you’re an Arizona or Arizona State fan who would have an hour-shorter drive to Sin City.
Hopefully the Pac-12’s new TV deals will spark some more interest in the tournament in the coming years, but regardless, it’s time to face the facts: Despite its postseason implications and down-to-the-wire showdowns year after year, this event just won’t draw crowds in the near future. The 2008 tournament drew more than 80,000 spectators over four days, back when the Lopez Twins were battling Kevin Love in the Stanford-UCLA final, but the Pac-12 just doesn’t have that kind of player at the moment. Interest in basketball across the conference is down because none of its teams seem to be a threat on the national level, and until the Pac-12 reestablishes itself as a premier conference there’s not much you can do to fill Staples Center, or any other venue for that matter.
Joseph Beyda is seriously thinking about growing an Andrew Zimmermann-like beard. Let him know if he should at firstname.lastname@example.org.