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Too many tourneys = too few fans
If a college basketball tournament is played at the world’s most famous arena and no one shows up to watch, do the results still count?
I pose the question because that’s what happened Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, where Alabama and Villanova advanced to the finals of the 2K Sports Classic with wins over Oregon State and Purdue, respectively — each doing so in thrilling fashion in front of a meager crowd that was more befitting of a local high school tournament than basketball’s mecca.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that 20 minutes before tip-off in the first semifinal between the Crimson Tide and the Beavers, the newly renovated arena in the heart of the busiest neighborhood in the busiest city in the country was totally empty.
It bears repeating: This historic arena, in the middle of New York City, was not sparsely populated, but vacant. There was literally no one there.
By the time the game started, a few hundred fans had trickled in, but even then, they could all have fit into a single lower bowl section or two. Once the second game started, featuring Villanova — which is located nearby in Philadelphia, just 100 miles or so southwest of Manhattan — the lower bowl was about half-full, while the upper bowl remained empty, silent and cloaked in darkness.
Forget hearing the players’ sneakers squeak on the floor. For much of the night — save for a couple exciting moments, like Alabama forward Rodney Cooper’s game-winning 3-pointer with 14 seconds left in the early game, or Villanova rallying from eight points down with 1:15 to play to send the late game to overtime — it was nearly quiet enough to hear their shoelaces coming untied.
And at no point were there enough attendees to generate the type of ruckus that should be customary of a college basketball game, though the stillness went largely unnoticed by the men on the court.
“As a coach, I couldn’t tell you if there were 100 people in the audience or 100,000 people,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said after his team’s 65-62 win. “I have no idea. I hear random noise, but other than that, I’m really locked in on the game.”
That’s fortunate for Grant, because if he’d taken a few moments to take in the Garden’s atmosphere, he’d have been left with a couple moments to spare. But the overwhelming lack of energy — not just at the 2K Sports Classic, but in many of the tournaments that are so scarcely attended every November — shouldn’t be blamed on the players, the coaches, the fans, the arena or any specific tournament.
Rather, the blame for these tournaments-cum-sleep-studies falls on the ballooning concept of preseason invitationals as a whole. There are just too many of them. Once sacred, invites to these tournaments are now handed out like Halloween candy to an increasing number of teams around the country, and as the field of participants grows, each individual event suffers accordingly.
Whereas the nation’s top talent was once spread among a few highly-anticipated, well-established events — the Great Alaska Shootout, the Maui Invitational, the Preseason NIT and, starting in the ‘90s, the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (which is now the 2K Sports Classic) — it’s now dispersed among dozens of competing tournaments all around the globe.
As a result, fans in New York get treated to fields like this year’s 2K Sports Classic, which features virtually no star power — unless you count Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, more famous for being the brother-in-law of President Barack Obama than anything he’s done at the helm of the Beavers — and exactly zero ranked teams.
The closest thing to a Top 25 program in the 2K Sports Classic is Alabama, which got five votes in the latest Associated Press poll, unofficially putting the Tide at No. 43 in the rankings. Similarly, the new iteration of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, which tips off Friday in Brooklyn, features one ranked team, No. 20 Notre Dame.
No. 1 Indiana and No. 13 UCLA will participate — and, God willing, meet in the finals — at the Legends Classic next Monday and Tuesday at the Barclays Center, making it one of the more compelling tournaments in the area, if not the entire preseason. Meanwhile, No. 5 Michigan is the only ranked team playing in the Preseason NIT semifinals back at the Garden next Wednesday.
Independent of each other, none of these lineups is particularly gripping, but if you took the best of each of them and constructed one strong tournament field — which is what would have happened, say, 15 or 20 years ago — it would be a must-see event for fans all around the country.
And that’s what the fans deserve instead of these underwhelming excuses to sell advertising on television.
Sure, college hoops purists will argue that there are benefits to having this many tournaments. For some mid-major schools, these events serve as their only chances to match up with the big boys until March, giving them an early opportunity to see how they stack up in front of a national audience.
In addition, middling teams from major conferences can use preseason classics as measuring sticks too. After his team’s loss, Robinson said he uses tournaments like the 2K Sports Classic to get a feel for how good his roster can be and see how his players perform against other teams that play at their level.
But no casual fan with any respect for the money in their wallet is going to go out of their to way to pay to watch teams play at that level, and that’s why preseason tournaments are increasingly amounting to a bunch of poorly attended exhibitions spread around the country.
When it’s all said and done, matchups between negligible teams like Oregon State, Alabama, Villanova and Purdue don’t do much for anyone but the coaches and players involved, and their die-hard fans who, by and large, still aren’t interested enough to invest in the trip to see the games live — regardless of how exciting they actually are (and both of Thursday’s contests went down to the wire).
The expanding nature of preseason tournaments is leading directly to the slow death of interest in the tournaments themselves. The basketball-watching public would rather see two powerhouses play a bad game than two bubble teams play a good game, and the thousands upon thousands of unfilled seats that littered Madison Square Garden Thursday night are a testament to that fact.
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