The Crossroads Classic was revived in 2011, spearheaded by Purdue's Morgan Burke, as a rebirth of the Hoosier Classic organized by Butler head coach Tom Hinkle in the 1940's and 50's. And in the early going, it was a smash success. The four programs involved - Purdue, Indiana, Notre Dame, and Butler - put the event on themselves, splitting the costs and the revenue generated evenly. The first year, on the heels of two Final Four appearances by the Butler Bulldogs and an Indiana team emerging from a rebuild, sold out. In its second year, headlined by an Indiana Hoosiers club that entered the season with a single-digit ranking, also sold out. In 2013 the bloom began to come off the rose. Still, though the Crossroads Classic did not sell out Bankers Life Fieldhouse's full 19,000+ capacity the event managed a respectable 18,165 in reported attendance. But none of the four programs involved reached postseason play last season.
The effect of those lackluster seasons seemed to have been a major factor in this year's disappointing attendance. Reported attendance was just 14,753 and from where I was sitting I think that was probably generous. Unlike in the first two seasons where fans of the program that played in the first game typically remained to catch the second contest, thousands of fans filed out as the Indiana/Butler match drew to a close. While the fans that remained were loud, especially Purdue's raucous sections, the tenor was muted in comparison to the early years when fans of teams from the first matchup would hang out to enjoy a second game and boo their rivals.
So What Changed?
The first and most obvious answer is that the success of the four programs involved has taken a considerable dip since the high point the programs enjoyed before the event's formation, but that alone isn't enough to explain it. After all, Butler and Notre Dame were ranked teams coming into this event and Indiana had at least presented well in wins over Pittsburgh and SMU. This event featured two matchups between Big Ten clubs and ranked teams but wasn't enough of a draw to match previous iterations. Diminishing novelty is a factor, sure, but so are competing events. Maybe we can look at the Crossroads Classic as igniting a trend as doubleheaders are now much more common across the college landscape than they were just a few short years ago. And unfortunately for the teams involved in the Crossroads Classic, those other Classics have an indisputably superior marquee. The Champions Classic - featuring Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke, and Kansas - was announced just under two months after the Crossroads Classic was announced and began in 2011 as well. A new event, the CBS Sports Classic featuring UCLA, Kentucky, Ohio State and North Carolina began this season and was played in Chicago on Saturday - the same date as the Crossroads Classic.
The CBS Sports Classic also knocked the Crossroads Classic from the previous network television they enjoyed to Fox Sports 1. The CBS Sports Classic will be played on the same date as the Crossroads Classic for each of the next two years, barring an extension, which I will charitably conclude that John Calipari had nothing to do with. In any event, the Crossroads Classic is now an event with fading attendance, waning relevance in relation to other major events, and a shrinking impact on television.
So What's Next?
Five more years, first of all. Earlier this year Indiana announced that the participating programs agreed to extend the event through 2019. So the Crossroads Classic is here to stay for a while longer at least. But can it rebound? Right now Notre Dame has maybe the best team they've had under Mike Brey and should return most of their roster next season including hometown product Demetrius Jackson. Indiana has a young team that should return everyone of note including Big Ten Freshman of the Year candidate James Blackmon Jr. Purdue has the potential to return both of their 7-ft post players. Next year's matchup could conceivably pit four ranked teams against each other and how the attendance looks next season could be a big key for the future of this event.
As well founded and as popular as this event was in the early going, a 2-year or 4-year span may have been more appropriate than scheduling the event out until 2019. As of now, an event that appears to be losing steam still has five contracted years to appear in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Next year could be big if attendance can rebound, but the CBS Sports Classic has coincidentally stolen a lot of the momentum this event had and the television viewership is unlikely to be as high without the network TV appearances that CBS would've provided. This event also reduces the scheduling flexibility of the participating teams, which could cause friction if only one or two of the teams involved are quality opponents.
The original Hoosier Classic eventually faded because of waning interest year-over-year and I suspect that we're seeing the precursor to that now. In a world that moves faster than a locomotive, the Crossroads Classic's time might have come and gone despite the games still left on the docket.