Back in February we told you about the deal between NBC Sports Network and the Colonial Athletic Association to broadcast football and basketball games, including the conference tournament. While the deal certainly wasn’t a gamebreaker for NBC Sports Network, getting the chance to be home to recent Final Four programs like George Mason and VCU is at least a starting point. However, in recent days, the realization has set in, and been confirmed, that the CAA will miss out on the most “prestigous” mid-major event of the college basketball season, ESPN’s BracketBusters. Of course, if the CAA’s banner programs like George Mason and VCU leave the CAA for the Atlantic 10, as has been rumored, NBCSN and the CAA will both be left out in the cold. But it’s hard to to project what any conference will look like long term, especially as mid-majors fight for the few spots left on the lifeboats of realignment.
So, that speculation aside, where does the loss of their BracketBusters game leave the CAA? Well, it will be very, very difficult for the CAA to get any high profile out-of-conference games for NBC to market. A major program isn’t likely to risk being embarrassed by one of the “Little Sisters of the Poor” during the season and their marquee mid-season mid-major game is now gone from the schedule. It’s a risk the conference took knowing they would be locked out of BracketBusters by signing the NBC deal.
But what about the other end of this BracketBusters breakup? Will ESPN survive without the likes of George Mason, Drexel, ODU, and VCU in their mid-major pool?
Of course they will. Is that even a serious question? (Yes, I realize I’m the one who asked it.) Honestly, BracketBusters is an overrated event. It invents a weekend out of the regular season for fans and media alike to pretend like they care about mid-major programs. Honestly, can you tell me any details of any of the memorable matchups that have occured in the last 10 years of BracketBusters? Unless you’re a fan of one of the schools involved, I highly doubt it. For the most part, it’s just another manufactured Saturday for ESPN to build programming around and to attempt to give some added value to the regular season. But, to suggest the event will lose any luster or value to ESPN because one of over a dozen conferences won’t take part in the event is laughable.
The CAA is of no concern to ESPN. Programs like St. Mary’s, Witchita St., Creighton, Ohio, Murray St., etc. will relish the opportunity to have even more exposure on ESPN as they make their case for at-large selections.
A more important question in this story might be if teams from the CAA will get a fair shake during the hours of Bracketology debate when their tournament profile is compared to schools from conferences who still participate in ESPN’s own sponsored event and continue to host their conference championship games on the family of networks.
After all, if the NHL has taught us anything, it’s that ESPN tends to promote and take interest in friends of ESPN. Take a look at Deadspin’s weekly breakdown of SportsCenter, it’s fascinating. In the past week Brittney Griner was talked about more often than any other single athlete. Did that have more to do with her amazing physical dominance of the sport, or the fact that ESPN had a Women’s Final Four to promote? If it were the former, why hasn’t Brittney Griner been covered every week on ESPN?
Consider the lengths ESPN has gone, even partnering with Fox, to keep NBC out of the college game. Look at the Mountain West Conference (a TV partner with Versus/NBCSN), who has consistently put multiple teams in the most recent NCAA Tournaments… how much coverage have those teams gotten on ESPN during the regular season? The conference will basically cease to exist on the WWL now that it’s left for enemy territory. If we’ve learned anything from realignment, it’s that ESPN’s power and influence in college sports is much greater than any of us realize.
The real intrigue of the CAA/NBC/BracketBusters saga is whether or not the unique platform given to a mid-major conference by NBC will overcome the imminent lack of publicity from the hype machine in Bristol. Will the year long coverage on NBCSN do more for the CAA than BracketBusters and a passing glance from ESPN? That’s a much more significant question for the CAA and NBC than missing out on one Saturday a year.