By Luke Winn
November 24, 2009

On a week when we can be thankful that ESPN networks are televising more than 50 hours of college basketball, let us consider the way this came about. In January 2006, the NCAA made two moves that it knew would precipitate a boom in the number of early-season tournaments, or "multi-team events," on the November-December landscape. It repealed the "two-in-four" rule that kept teams from playing in multi-team events more than twice in any four-year span, and, in a less-publicized rule change, eliminated the events' certification process, which had required operators to provide detailed financial information to the NCAA and have the school or conference sponsoring the event be responsible for selecting the field.

The explosion in multi-team events (the attraction of which is that a team gets to play up to four extra games on top of the NCAA's 27-game base) initially happened, with the number of tournaments surging from 35 in 2005 to 58 by 2006. But it has since subsided: By SI's count, there are only 35 in 2009. Ultimately, the rule changes' effect wasn't to increase the quantity of multi-team events -- it was to empower the dominant cable television network in college basketball, which was freed to create its own programming without the NCAA's financial supervision.

"I don't think it was the NCAA's intention at the time, but they anointed ESPN king of the [early-season tournament] world from one day to the next," says Steve Cobb, the athletic director at University of Alaska-Anchorage, which is the last school left that owns and operates a full-format early-season tournament, the 32-year-old Great Alaska Shootout. The Maui Invitational and the Shootout had long been the game's signature early-season events, but when ESPN didn't renew the Shootout's television deal after the 2007 tournament, it fell from prominence. This year the event has shrunk to six teams. "ESPN didn't need me anymore," says Cobb. "All the barriers to them owning their own tournaments were lifted."

And so, in the season that followed the enactment of the NCAA's new legislation, ESPN Regional Television, an event-management and marketing subsidiary of ESPN based in Charlotte, jumped into the market and created its first, eight-team tournament: The Old Spice Classic, which was held an arena owned by ESPN's parent company, Disney, on the grounds of Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

In 2007, ESPN launched two more tournaments, the 76 Classic, in Anaheim, Calif., and the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan. In 2008 they launched the Charleston Classic in Charleston, S.C.; next month, they'll debut the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii; and in December 2010 they'll unveil the Cancun Governor's Cup in Mexico. In the meantime, some non-ESPN tournaments have faded, and others, such as the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the San Juan Shootout, have been forced out of the market altogether.

"When the legislation opened up, we had an opportunity," says Clint Overby, ESPN Regional Television's senior director of events. By stacking the 76 Classic and Old Spice at the same time -- and, next year, the Diamond Head and Cancun events -- ESPN Regional Television has been able to fill full-day blocks with hoops programming of their own creation. "It was never our intention to compete in any way with the other events that would put them in an awkward position," says Overby.

But there is no denying that ESPN has changed the landscape. The NCAA's '06 rule change was the end product of an antitrust lawsuit brought in 2000 by independent tournament organizers Worldwide Basketball, Sports Tours International, Dorna Sports Promotions and the Gazelle Group -- and ironically, by 2009, Gazelle is the only one of those entities still putting on high-visibility events.

Only nine tournaments not owned by ESPN have their finals on national cable this year. ESPN has broadcast rights to four of them: the NIT Season Tip-Off (owned by the NCAA), the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic (Gazelle), the CBE Classic (Gazelle) and the Maui Invitational (KemperSports). Meanwhile, Fox Sports has the Paradise Jam (owned by Basketball Travelers), South Padre Island Tournament (Basketball Promotions), and Great Alaska Shootout (University of Alaska-Anchorage); HDNet has the Legends Classic (Gazelle); and CBS College Sports has the Cancun Challenge (Triple Crown Sports).

The other 21 tournaments, unable to use TV as a lure in booking teams, fight for the scraps. Says Lee Frederick, the president of Milwaukee-based Sport Tours, which ran the San Juan Shootout from 1987 until it died in 2008, "ESPN is the gorilla that's coming after all of us, trying to eat us all up."

Frederick is bitter -- obscenely bitter -- on the subject of ESPN's push into the tournament market. He still runs two multi-team events, the Glenn Wilkes Classic in Daytona, Fla., and the Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic, but neither is on TV. "F--- ESPN," he says. "Print that. F--- ESPN. They think history started with them. Well, they didn't create s---. They just have more money than God."

With money, though, comes offers teams can't refuse: Whereas Frederick's financial model for the San Juan Shootout involved teams paying for a travel package that Sport Tours arranged, ESPN can pay guarantees that cover (and in the case of high-profile schools, greatly exceed) teams' travel expenses. Combine solid financials with TV opportunities, and you get quality tournament fields: Last season's Old Spice Classic (with Michigan State, Gonzaga, Maryland, Georgetown, Oklahoma State, Siena and Tennessee) had the best field in the country, and this year's 76 Classic (with West Virginia, Butler, Clemson, Minnesota, Texas A&M, UCLA and Portland) is deeper than any other event.

Says Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, whose team was in the penultimate San Juan Shootout, in 2007, but has moved to ESPN events over the past two years, "There's no substitute for national TV. It's huge for recruiting, as you're advancing and selling your program."

It's become increasingly rare for any of college basketball's elites to commit to play in an early-season tournament that isn't televised: Oklahoma is in this year's Great Alaska Shootout, which didn't have a TV deal with Fox College Sports until earlier this month, only because the Sooners signed a contract to play there while walking off the court in Anchorage in 2004. Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel, who inherited the deal, played in the Shootout as a Duke guard in 1995, when UConn, Indiana and Iowa were all there, too, and ESPN promoted and televised the marquee games in spite of their late-night tip-off times on the East Coast.

"It was such a big deal back then," says Capel, who has plans to take his Sooners to Maui next year, and ESPN tournaments the two following seasons. "But what I think happened is, ESPN kind of seized the chance to have a monopoly on these events. It's a good business move for them, but I feel bad. ... The [Shootout] was well-attended when I was there, and if you're a historian of the game, what you normally think of as the start of the season is Maui and the Great Alaska Shootout. But it's like what happens with everything -- corporations come in and take over."

Where does ESPN go from here? Pete Derzis, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN Regional Television, says that it's unlikely the company will create any additional tournaments in the near future. "We're going to sit and monitor what happens," says Derzis, "but I think six is a really good number for us."

With its current spread of tournaments -- as well as the fact that its networks will televise 1,100 total games this season -- ESPN has considerable leverage in the team-booking game. "We can offer one-stop shopping," says Derzis, meaning that they're able to book teams in three different events over a three-year span. ESPN's advantages have forced competitors, like the NCAA (with its NIT Season Tip-Off) and Gazelle Group (with its 2K Sports College Hoops Classic) to offer creative incentives, the most popular of which is permitting the four marquee teams in each field to host two preliminary-round games at home -- and share in the gate receipts -- before advancing to Madison Square Garden. Without such deals, the elite tournaments would struggle to compete with ESPN's.

As Rick Giles, the president of the Gazelle Group, laments, "If I had a network, I'd be invincible in the preseason event business."

Some industry insiders think the market could change further in 2011; that's when ESPN's contract runs out with the Maui Invitational, a longtime staple of the network's Thanksgiving-week coverage. While Derzis said Maui "is working pretty well from my perspective," KemperSports didn't respond to SI's interview request. But one rival tournament director who spoke on condition of anonymity said: "I think ESPN's grand plan is to [have its events] become Maui times one or two. Right now [ESPN] pays Maui a significant rights fee, but there's no way they're going to pay that next time, because of the way the marketplace has changed. ESPN will be able to say, 'We'll pay you less, or nothing, or do a barter deal, and if you don't, we can just move one of our tournaments into your time slot.' Does Maui take that deal, or do they roll the dice and say, 'We'll take on ESPN?'"

By that time, though, ESPN could be more powerful than ever. The NCAA has the ability to opt out of its 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS for the NCAA tournament by July 31, 2010, and USA Today reported earlier this month that ESPN is interested in pursuing a March Madness deal if it's open for bidding. Coincidentally, ESPN's contract with the NCAA-owned NIT also expires in 2010. Unless CBS ups the ante to keep the NCAA tournament, ESPN could be in a near-monopolistic role where its Charlotte wing owns college basketball's early-season, and its Bristol wing has exclusive control over the postseason. There would be no stopping that gorilla.

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