VANCOUVER, Feb. 24 -- I'm writing to you from the diiiiistant
By the time you read this, the flame will be out, the [CENSORED - ed.]
will be over, conference tourney time will have begun; I'll be a jello glob with re-entry syndrome and a fried immune system, telling everybody to go screw themselves. (That usually lasts for three days.) Knowing this, I'd like to send this letter to the future about something that will be completely irrelevant and forgotten by March the 2nd: BracketBusters 2010.
I was head cheerleader for BracketBusters once, long ago in another time and place. I earnestly defended the event against all the common lines of criticism. Does this really help mid-major teams? Doesn't this hurt mid-majors, because they're all playing each other and killing at-large profiles with losses? Would it be better to play low-level BCS teams instead? Isn't this bad, bad, bad?
I'd always reply: well, wins and losses aren't really the point. One game among 31 isn't going to help or hurt in any significant way, and you can count the "signature wins" in BracketBusters history on one hand. If a team's good enough, it's going to get in, Buster or no Buster. Especially in 2009-10, the miracle season when NJIT became a bubble team.
My favorite part about BracketBusters, and I've said this 100 times, is that home teams have to return the game the next year. This is an era where the number of mid-on-major games is shrinking, and evenly-matched mid-on-mid matchups are at a premium. One filled nonconference slot in November can mean one less guarantee game at a BCS arena. It can also mean that it doesn't have to hunt down a D-II or NAIA team to beat on, which in the eyes of the NCAA is a burned rock (curling reference).
But that part of it doesn't seem to matter anymore. This time around, home teams don't have to return the game until 2011-12. I don't know why this happened, and I don't really care how it did, but the point is that home teams don't have to return the game until 2011-12. ScheduleBusting is clearly not the primary priority here.
So with that out of the way, we can call BracketBusters exactly what it is. It's a lottery with bad odds, with prizes of questionable or negligible quality. And the winner is always ESPN.
This has never been a perfect setup. At least not since the field expanded to triple digits, beyond a small subset of traditional "good mid-majors" like Gonzaga and Southern Illinois and Creighton. I wrote once, in their space, that ESPN should at least help out the Buster road teams (cash-strapped as they are) with their travel needs. Maybe if a little of that ConAgra, eBay or O'Reilly Auto Parts sponsorship money went towards the school had to fly out to Hawaii on 19 days notice, this could be a more fair and equitable event for everyone involved. They never got back to me on that.
When I visited the Charlotte studios two years ago, I brought up my idea to some producers to turn ESPNU into the "mid-major channel" for one Saturday, really get serious about it. Campus features, player profiles, roundtable discussions, and a ticker filled with standings and scoring leaders from the Others. It was good for a light chuckle, anyway,
This was never about "helping mid-majors." C'mon, seriously?
But I can understand ESPN's motivations, and I have a certain amount of sympathy for its particular condition. It's an entity beyond large or huge, and it's built a lot of suffixed channels it needs to fill. The matrix has grown so big that it competes with itself more than it does with the outside. Dead air and infomercials are more of an enemy than Fox Sports Net could ever hope to be.
And so it needs content, the more compelling the better. It snaps up all the pro and college sports and World Cup soccer it can get. It doesn't want
the 2014 and 2016 [CENSORED - ed.]
, it neeeeeds
them. What are the alternatives, Trick Shot Magic and Colin Cowherd on TV? So executives spend a lot of time formulating interesting closed contexts like Rivalry Week, Student Spirit Week, Feast Week, Championship Week, anything to form a sponsorable franchise. BracketBusters too.
This shouldn't be any kind of shocking revelation, but each of the 100-plus schools that participate in BracketBusters are helping ESPN more than they are helping themselves. They are subsuming their own interests to a conglomerate's need for constant stuff, feeding a monster that never gives back as much as it takes.
I'm certainly not calling on conferences to pull out, like the Sun Belt and West Coast already have. I understand the need for the OVC, Big West and Big Sky to jump in the pool and have that that tiny chance to get a team on ESPNU (and I know that in some cases, there are contractual conditions). Back in Rhode Island, there's a convenience store three blocks from my house, and I can't go there anymore because there's always a five-deep line for the Pick 5 machine. Life on this side of the Red Line is about big wishes, one-in-a-million and once-in-a-lifetime chances, Cinderella moonbeams and golden tickets. This is just the way we are; we're easily manipulated, I suppose.
But conference commissioners and AD's with sad-sack basketball programs must be asking themselves, what's in it for us? Without the return game, that isn't so clear anymore. Besides, there are other lucky pennies lying around on this street of dreams.
Every November and December, schools have the power to make their very own DIY BracketBusters. There's no rule againt an in-season home-and-home with a like-budgeted from another league -- that's a two-bird, one-stone proposition right there. There are neutral site tourneys and four-team quads at home gyms, and it's endlessly baffling to me that these events are starting to have trouble filling out their fields. At a Multi-Team Event, a mid-major might even get a shot at a Red Line Upset. Now that 2-in-4 is history, they can do it every year! They'll get a better deal from SportTours or Basketball Travelers than they do with the Worldwide Leader.
Even if it wouldn't necessarily mean a television appearance. It's 2010 -- what's so special about getting on TV? Is a 0.6 rating on ESPNU going to fire up the alumni base and lead to an avalanche of donations? If it's about access to broadcasts, this is the age of Pixelvision. I've seen Coastal Carolina play six times this year.
I don't expect anything to change. For BracketBusters 2011, they'll find 100 teams for the pool again, and the process will repeat. Some East Coast school with a $900,000 basketball budget will have to break the bank for a surprise California trip, and we'll have interleague challenges among the Valley, Horizon and CAA that might be better organized by the commissioners themselves. A few more people will weigh the pros and cons of setting aside that third Saturday in February.
Perhaps enough will, though, and Hoops Nation can go about the business of building superior models, and remaining relevant on its own terms. Who knows what ESPN would do if fewer and fewer teams and conferences offered themselves up to the Content Monster. But wouldn't it be neat to find out?