The life of a mid-major college basketball program in today’s world of conference expansion, switching and dissolving is a perilous one at best. Sure, there are some that will probably always be fine, but there are far more Drexels out there than Butlers, Gonzagas and Xaviers.
That is why this week’s news of the discontinuation of ESPN’s annual BracketBusters event is particularly alarming for so many schools. It was yet another body blow in the never-ending fight for relevance for mid-tier teams in non-power leagues.
The immediate prism that this news has to be viewed through is the same one that drives the majority of today’s NCAA athletics—money. For the past 11 years BracketBusters has served as an opportunity for these mid-major schools to gain national television exposure, get involved with ESPN and generate ticket sales.
Clearly these athletic programs won’t be declaring for bankruptcy because these games are no longer on the schedule, but it certainly didn’t hurt their pocketbooks to be involved with this event.
However, the cancellation of these games is also worrisome for a more wholesome reason.
There will almost inevitably be fewer tournament spots in terms of at-large bids for a number of these conferences. Playing in a BracketBuster contest presented a chance to boost mediocre RPI rankings and strength of schedule numbers, while also allowing non-power league schools an opportunity to separate themselves from the pack.
If a handful of Horizon, Missouri Valley and West Coast Conference teams are on the bubble come Selection Sunday, which is almost always the case, a win in a BracketBuster game against fellow bubble squads will go a long way in the eyes of the committee.
It also gave the better mid-major teams that participated a chance to test their mettle versus NCAA tournament-quality competition. VCU coach Shaka Smart expressed to ESPN just how valuable the BracketBuster experience was to his team’s Final Four run.
BracketBusters was clearly beneficial to teams like us over the years… It allowed us to play a top-50 or top-100 game and gave us the opportunity to gain an additional high-quality win that may not have otherwise been available.
Former George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who went to the Final Four himself, reiterated Smart’s thoughts on the subject to ESPN.
It created a tremendous opportunity for outstanding mid-major teams looking to secure an at-large bid to get the exposure needed. Without it, our George Mason run to the Final Four would never have happened.
The exposure aspect of it that Larranaga harped on is so critical for these schools. Brand recognition is a major factor in television contracts, tournament considerations (both post and preseason), recruiting and, like it or not, the next round of inevitable interconference poaching.
Not to play conspiracy theory or anything, but ESPN is basically the agenda setter in today’s sports world (hence the ever-so-modest Worldwide Leader in Sports tag). Therefore, if the four-letter network is talking about your basketball program and airing it that basically means you are relevant.
For better or worse it was beneficial for these mid-major schools to have this relationship with ESPN in regards to all the aspects previously discussed—money, tournament chances, exposure to larger conferences always on the prowl for new teams and, perhaps most importantly, future recruiting.
Last, but never least, don’t forget about the fans of these mid-major schools. BracketBusters treated them to extensive exposure (it’s not every day an out of town George Mason fan gets to watch his or her team), a great in-game atmosphere for those in attendance and the chance to see where their respective teams stood.
Don’t worry though fans. The NCAA always puts your interests ahead of money. I’m sure if it is involved in coming up with a replacement event for ESPN’s BracketBusters, you will not be disappointed.