November 7, 2011

College Basketball Now in the Spotlight

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This Friday marks the beginning of the NCAA men’s Division I basketball season. North Carolina and Michigan State will face off this Veterans Day aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. The two teams are perennial title contenders with illustrious histories and the Carolina Tar Heels are ranked No. 1 in this season’s preseason poll. It is the first time that a game will be played aboard an aircraft carrier, and not just any aircraft carrier — the same ship that carried Osama bin Laden’s body. As if the matchup and the setting weren’t momentous enough, President Obama will be in attendance. These details will undoubtedly draw an inordinate amount of both positive and negative media attention. The game will be cast as an afterthought, but the attention will be valuable nonetheless.

Yet the sport doesn’t need this kind of a game to draw attention to the sport this season. The lack of an NBA season is enough to shine a brighter spotlight on collegiate basketball right now. The obvious reason is elimination of a major source of competition for television viewership. While it’s true that to some degree the fans who follow the NBA are not the same as those who follow NCAA basketball, there is undoubtedly some overlap, and surely the lack of an NBA season will draw some professional basketball fans to a collegiate game that can be just as — if not more — exciting at times. With a lack of NBA games, Division I basketball will fill much more screen time on local channels’ sports recaps and more importantly on ESPN. Without NBA highlights, you can be sure that SportsCenter will be spending much more time covering the college game. This increased coverage may in turn draw disheartened NBA fans to the NCAA.

The increased coverage is a critical point for sponsors such as the makers of jerseys and other college basketball-related merchandise. Advertising works for sponsors in part because of exposure. In light of this, it makes sense that consumers will be more driven in part to buy the jerseys and merchandise of players and teams they are being exposed to more. Without pro basketball all-stars to drive jersey sales, a more profitable venture for brands and stores will likely be to feature the jerseys of college hoops phenoms doing work. Nike has already caught on to the marketing opportunities that the NBA lockout is providing for NCAA basketball. They recently rolled out a marketing campaign with the slogan “(Insert college name) Basketball Never Stops.”

The slogan is brilliant because it captures an important sentiment surrounding the lockout. It works because it taps into the frustration that disheartened NBA fans feel because the game they follow has stopped in presenting an alternative that doesn’t stop. Such a sentiment may also be another force that directs the attention of pro fans to the college game. Whereas professional ball players have stopped playing because they are squabbling over money with the owners in what is often cast as a dispute between “millionaires and billionaires,” college ball players are still playing presumably because the game is more important. It’s the idea that the adults are acting like kids, and the kids are playing for the love of the game. The reality is of course more nuanced than this, but what matters is that the sentiment is felt by fans and often echoed by the media. The kids are viewed as playing a purer and more worthy game, while the players are caught up in what is ultimately a business.

This perceived pureness of the basketball played at the college level has appeal. Furthermore, an unsullied reputation may enjoy even more appeal this season in light of the scandalized reputation of college football. Unlike college football, which has suffered from recent scandals involving players gaining improper benefits at major programs like Ohio State and the University of Miami, there are no similar allegations surrounding any of the Division I basketball programs. The string of similar scandals at other major college football programs over the past few years has been enough to catch the attention of a non-sports outlet — The Atlantic — which rolled out a major story about the subject headlining the cover of its October issue.

History has shown that college basketball is not immune to scandal and that increased interest in the sport will not be sustained once the NBA returns, but at least for half of a season, and maybe even the whole season, the lack of an NBA and the game’s good reputation will give Division I men’s basketball its moment in the sun. The increased attention will be beneficial for the players looking to make a name for themselves, programs trying to recruit future stars and sponsors looking to make money off of the attention. It’s unlikely that Cornell’s men’s basketball team will be one of the beneficiaries of this increased attention, but maybe the lack of NBA games to watch on television will draw more Cornellians out to Newman Arena this season. If you’re looking for a collection of players playing solely for love of the game, this might be one of the few arenas offering what you’re looking for.

Original Author: Brian Bencomo