Monday, November 30, 2009

ESPN has a monopoly on college hoops broadcasting, but is that a bad thing for the sport?

You may have missed it while celebrating your Thanksgiving, but Luke Winn wrote an excellent piece on the preseason tournaments and ESPN's influence on them.

Two rule changes - the NCAA doing away with the limitation of two multi-team events in four seasons and the decision to reduce the red tape involved with hosting a tournament - have had a huge effect on the structure of college hoops in November. Essentially, it allowed ESPN to operate their own tournaments instead of having to purchase the rights to televising events such as the Maui Invitational and the Great Alaska Shootout.

Why do you think tournaments like last weekend's 76 and Old Spice Classics had all 12 games televised on ESPN? And why do you think they were conveniently scheduled for Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, leaving open the lucrative college football Saturday?

This obviously is a big blow to tournament organizers. It can't feel good when a massive corporation breaks into your industry, corners the market, and forces you out. And I doubt I'm the only one that would be upset if the Maui Invitational went the way of the Great Alaska Shootout.

But at some point, you have to call a spade, a spade. As much as we would like to think that ESPN is in existence to provide us with endless coverage of our favorite teams, the fact of the matter is that ESPN is a business. And like any other business, ESPN's main goal is to make money. To make as much of it as possible. In thirty short years, they have gone from a little station started in Bristol, CT, to the World Wide Leader in Sports in large part because of aggressive maneuvering like this.

Like it or not, that's how ESPN does business.

But this isn't a business blog; we talk hoops here.

And from a hoops perspective, the addition of all these tournaments, and the exposure given them by ESPN, is a very good thing. Getting people excited about college basketball in November is not easy with the NFL and college football winding down and the NBA and hockey starting up.

These tournaments provide that excitement.

Think about the build up to the Duke-UConn game how excited the fans were to see it.

Think about how hard the kids from Gonzaga and Cincinnati were playing in the finals out in Maui.

Think about how special it was for the Portland basketball program to beat a blue blood and then knock off a ranked team on back-to-back nights on national television.

One of the biggest advantages is for the mid-major schools like a Creighton or a Siena. For major programs playing outside the BCS (the Gonzagas and Xaviers of the world), it is relatively easy to land tough non-conference competition. There is no shame in losing to a perennial top 25 power. But for the smaller mid-majors, the teams that turn into cinderellas when the calender strikes March, it is a different story. No power conference school wants to lose to a mediocre mid-major. You don't think Mississippi State's home loss to Rider is going to be talked about extensively if the Bulldogs end up on the bubble?

These tournaments allow the good small schools a chance to beef up their out-of-conference schedule, and if they win a few games, establish the groundwork for a possible at-large bid.

Hell, the biggest advocates should be the bracket buffs. For someone like me, born, raised, and still living on the east coast, it helps so much to see a school like Portland or Dayton or Arizona State, teams that are seldom on national television and never on locally, play a couple times.

None of that happens without these tournaments.

As far as I'm concerned, the only drawback from a basketball perspective is the crowds. Some of these tournaments looked like high school freshman games. The only people in the gym were the teams, the media, and family members. But remember, these games are played during Thanksgiving, and for the most part take place in exotic locales or tourist destinations. It isn't easy to draw the interest of Los Angelians, especially when teams like Clemson, Minnesota, or Texas A&M are playing.

And its Thanksgiving! Power conference teams that don't have to play road game aren't going to, which means the games we would end up with are low-majors traveling to play high-majors. With the students gone for the holiday, the only people that are going to see the games played are the local fans that are willing to put dinner on hold for a couple of hours.

Yes, it sucks what is happening to some of the traditionally great tournaments as a result of the new rules. Hopefully, ESPN isn't so greedy that they would be willing to put an end to a tradition as great as the Maui Invitational.

But if they are, that just means that events like the Puerto Rico Tip-Off are going to have to take their place.

In terms of what is best for the game, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

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