Tuesday, May 14, 2024

How ESPN Might Save The NIT

ESPN’s relationships with the NCAA, SEC and ACC might end up saving the NIT. At least that is my initial takeaway after reading a memo that the SEC’s Charlie Hussey, deputy commissioner/COO, and Garth Glissman, associate commissioner for men's basketball sent to SEC Athletic Directors on March 13, 2024.

The memo was sent in preparation for a meeting of SEC athletic directors on March 20. It outlines the pros and cons of signing on with the new unnamed (at the time) competing postseason tournament for 2025 and beyond. That tournament, announced on April 3 as the College Basketball Crown, will feature 16 non-NCAA Tournament teams in Las Vegas the week after the Elite 8.

I obtained a copy of that memo from the University of Mississippi through a FOIA request related to the NIT. The document was part of a 987-page production of email correspondence related to the NIT during the week of Selection Sunday.

The memo includes a lot of interesting information both about how the SEC’s main office was thinking about the College Basketball Crown and the NIT. Here are a few takeaways:

1. ESPN’s relationship with the NCAA (as the television broadcaster of the NIT) and the SEC and ACC (through their conference networks) is an important talking point.

Under “Option 1 (NIT)” the memo states that: “ESPN is the NIT's broadcast partner through 2032. If the SEC continues to send its top non-NCAA Tournament teams to the NIT, ESPN is willing to broadcast some of the SEC teams' NIT games on the SEC Network. ESPN offered the same arrangement to the ACC and its network.” 
This is important because the College Basketball Crown will take place on the networks of FOX (FOX or FS1 according to the memo), which would mean losing games to networks outside of the conferences’ typical television footprint. 
In fact, under the “Analysis” headline the memo states: “ESPN Relationship: As part of ESPN's recently signed agreement with the NCAA to expand its coverage of NCAA championship events, ESPN acquired the rights to broadcast the NIT through 2032. The SEC's relationship with ESPN could be adversely impacted if the SEC opts to participate in the FOX Event and therefore diminishes the value of ESPN's rights to broadcast the NIT. Additionally, to incentivize SEC teams' continued participation in the NIT, the NIT and ESPN offered to broadcast NIT games involving SEC teams on the SEC Network.”

2. The decision to join the College Basketball Crown is not a small one.

The memo states that the competition was looking for a 5-year commitment from each conference. Conversely, the NIT was willing to continue with an annual commitment.

3. The NIT was prepared to offer incentives.

Last season the NIT added protected bids for the power conference teams in order to stave off the momentum of an event like the College Basketball Crown. At the same time, the NIT also apparently raised the honorarium it pays to host institutions from 15% to 20%. In order to remain competitive with the College Basketball Crown, the NIT was willing to offer power conference teams further incentives. The memos states: “To further incentivize the SEC to participate in the NIT in 2025 and beyond, the NIT is potentially willing to make the following accommodations to an SEC team participating in NIT: (i) increase the travel party size above 25, (ii) increase the per diem rate, (iii) increase the honorarium paid to host institutions, (iv) increase the travel stipend, (v) provide host team sponsors with a percentage of rotating signage, and (vi) provide charter flight accommodations to the site of the NIT semifinals and championship.”

Those incentives make sense given that the College Basketball Crown was apparently offering: “Covered expenses for each team's travel party (up to 30 individuals) include commercial airfare, hotel rooms, ground transportation, and meals.” The NIT’s incentives make the decision quite competitive for teams from conferences like the SEC that could potentially host multiple games.

4. It does appear the College Basketball Crown’s is a field of “power conference” teams.

The memo states that, “The FOX Event intends to distinguish itself from the NIT by fielding teams largely from "power" conferences (rather than teams from a broader group of NCAA Division I conferences) and providing a premium experience for student-athletes, coaches, and fans.” How the tournament is able to fill out a competitive 16-team field drawing from currently three power conferences remains to be seen.

Given all of that, why wouldn’t the SEC stick with the NIT? Well the “Analysis” portion of the memo highlights three key factors:

  1. “Watered Down” NIT: This is mainly a concern about what will happen to the NIT once the College Basketball Crown starts in 2025, but it does include this interesting sentence, “Further, the quality of teams participating in the NIT and its prestige already has diminished over time, culminating in the NIT's semifinal and championship games recently moving away from its longtime home, Madison Square Garden in New York.” It’s interesting that even the SEC’s office feels that moving away from MSG reduced the prestige of the NIT.
  2. Power Conference Opponents: All you need to know here is that it includes the statement that “participating in the FOX Event would enable SEC teams to avoid the "brand damage" associated with losing to a school from a non-power conference in the NIT”. If that’s really the concern
  3. Opportunity for Innovation: Basically, why not try something new?

Neither the SEC nor the ACC was mentioned in the initial press release that came out about the College Basketball Crown, so it appears that both conferences declined to sign 5-year contracts with the event. This of course does not preclude them from doing so in the future, but it does seem like the NIT has some potential ways to mitigate the damage done from this competing secondary postseason tournament.

Know more about the NIT or the College Basketball Crown? Send me tips at jtemplon@gmail.com.

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