658 — That was the official attendance at the Big Ten baseball tournament final between Maryland and Michigan at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minn.
That’s a number likely to shock those who didn’t tune in to the tournament. Sure, incoming bad weather didn’t help on this particular day, but it wasn’t the only game devoid of fans or any atmosphere — and therein lies the bigger problem for a sport on the rise in terms of national respect in the sport.
Anyone that caught a glimpse of the 2015 Big Ten baseball tournament in person or on the Big Ten network likely isn’t shocked by any of this. Still, it’s hard to figure out how a conference with 13 baseball playing schools can’t even manage to halfway fill the lower bowl of a major league baseball stadium.
Besides, it wasn’t like this tournament took place in a stadium or city devoid of a Big Ten baseball program. It also wasn’t the first time the tournament took place at Target Filed either. Just two years ago the city saw the six-team tournament in person and it failed to produce anything near great attendance either.
A championship game between Indiana and Nebraska drew just over 1,000 fans to the cavernous confines of Target Field.
Sure, Minnesota baseball isn’t great, and no doubt baseball takes a distant fourth or fifth in the minds of many fans around the conference, but tournament play is supposed to be all about high drama and a gathering of fans from across the conference.
Heck, even an increase in teams to eight from six didn’t seem to help much in the way of game-by-game attendance.
The good news is that the tournament delivered on some amazing baseball and some really high drama. ESPN’s SportsCenter showcased two amazing catches during the tournament, and then there was the fact that were 10 games decided by two runs or less.
Even the championship game itself was drama-filled and close. Michigan took home the title as the No. 3 seed by the score of 4-3, only taking home the title by holding off a furious rally by the Terps in the final few innings.
What more could fans, television producers and the Big Ten offices want for in a tournament, right?
Except the close games, relatively good weather and television exposure didn’t seem to matter much at all.
Perhaps it means a new location for the tournament is in order — one that will allow for the Big Ten to make it a destination for fans across the conference. Consider it the mini-College World Series that the Big Ten should be after.
The real question is where should that place be? Wrigley Field in Chicago may not be a bad suggestion, nor would a place like Indianapolis and the home of the Indians AAA team.
Wrigley Field’s historic significance and ongoing renovations make it a best of both world’s” scenario. Indianapolis already has the hosting of big time events down pat, and the Indians ballpark, Victory Field, is right downtown, isn’t too small or too big (capacity of 14,320) and has plenty of fan-focused parts to it to make it worthwhile exploring.
However, there could be an outside-the-box solution that works for the needs of everyone…and that place is Miller Park in Milwaukee.
No, the University of Wisconsin doesn’t have a baseball team and Milwaukee isn’t where the university is located anyway, but that city is a baseball city. It loves the Brewers and the game itself, but most importantly Miller Park can be a destination place for fans across the conference.
Not only that, but the Big Ten would avoid one of the issues that hurts it most on the in-person attendance front —bad weather. Placing the tournament at Miller Park means having a retractable roof to play games inside or out when needed.
That’s a huge win on its own.
The other big thing is Miller Park is surrounded by parking lots for plenty of tailgating. Having that space can also allow the conference to create an atmosphere of importance and fun around the tournament that doesn’t currently exist.
Imagine turning it in to a fan-friendly destination that encourages tailgating and even maybe some sort of concert series for pre and post-game entertainment.
Making the destination for the Big Ten tournament a place where fans can do what comes naturally — mainly tailgating and showing off school pride — would be a smart move.
The question is, will the Big Ten offices care enough about getting fans to show up to games or will they continue to beat a dead horse because they don’t want to do more?
If the Big Ten is smart, they would capitalize on the increasing national attention of baseball inside the conference and make the product more watchable and fan-friendly. A change of venue would do just that.