Decades ago, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) was the tournament that college basketball teams wanted to participate in and the championship everyone wanted to...

Decades ago, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) was the tournament that college basketball teams wanted to participate in and the championship everyone wanted to win — so much so that teams often turned down bids to the NCAA Tournament in order to play in the NIT, whose Final Four was held at Madison Square Garden, long considered basketball’s “Mecca.”

Those days are almost inconceivable now, and the NIT is now a college basketball synonym for “consolation prize.” Mid-major teams that lose in conference championship games, or power conference schools that have underachieved, are serenaded with chants of “N-I-T!” The tournament has been saddled with nicknames such as the “Not Invited Tournament” and the “Not In Tournament.” And the NIT’s TV deal with ESPN is worth $24.1 million over 10 years — as opposed to the $6.2 billion, 11-year deal the NCAA has with the CBS family of networks.

But there’s still an element of prestige and tradition to the NIT that makes the tournament and the Final Four — still held at Madison Square Garden — in particular an attractive second option for teams and fans alike.

While the NIT record for overall attendance (326,466 in 1981) will probably never be approached, the NIT Final Four, which begins tonight, Tuesday, March 29 with Alabama facing Colorado and Washington State battling Wichita State, annually draws thousands of fans to Madison Square Garden, even in a year in which there is nobody remotely local vying for the championship.

Last year’s semifinal doubleheader between Dayton and Mississippi and North Carolina and Rhode Island drew 11,689 fans to the 19,763-seat MSG while 9,827 fans turned out for the title game between Dayton and North Carolina two nights later.

“It’s not one of the premier basketball events of the year, but the fact there are so many of these basketball events at one time, we think that it creates demand for all of them,” Jason Berger, the managing partner of AllShows.com, told TicketNews. “There’s spillover from the East Regional [held last weekend in Newark] and from the Big East Tournament [held three weeks ago at Madison Square Garden]. People who couldn’t make it to one of those still want to see college basketball, so there’s a small uptick in sales.”

While the presence of four teams outside the eastern time zone this year may result in a drop in attendance — “It’s a big trip for people to go from Denver, so it’s going to take the strongest of alumni to make the trip cross country,” Roger Jones of Denver-based Alliance Tickets said — ticket prices should still generate a decent walk-up crowd. Tickets this year range from $10 in the upper regions of Madison Square Garden to $45 and $60 for seats closer to the court — a bit pricy for a secondary tournament, but nowhere near the list price for seats to see the NBA’s Knicks or NHL’s Rangers.

“Forty-five to sixty is probably on the lower end of an average basketball event in New York,” Berger said. “They’re competing against the Knicks and the Rangers at MSG, where the average ticket price is well over $100.”

The NIT also serves as inspiration for teams that can either use it as a building block for future success or as proof they should have been invited to the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina reached the NIT championship game last year and the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament this year. Baylor reached the NIT championship game in 2009 and the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last year, while fellow 2009 NIT Final Four participants San Diego State and Notre Dame were each no. 2 seeds in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Colorado, the top overall seed in this year’s NIT, was widely recognized as the best team left out of the NCAA Tournament, and the Buffaloes advanced to New York by winning their first three NIT games by an average of 13 points apiece.

“Basically, there’s been a little bit of an attitude that ‘Hey, we got screwed out of an opportunity to go to the dance,'” Jones said. “People have been interested. Tickets [to earlier NIT games were] certainly not flying out the door, but we’ve had some interest and tickets have been selling.”