As you may have heard -- our own Andy Katz had the story Tuesday afternoon -- the Armed Forces Classic will once again open the college basketball season in militarized style. Last season's inaugural AFC, a Department of Defense and ESPN joint, kicked things off with a well-received game at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. This year's edition, as Andy reported, will take the college game to a U.S. Army base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, where Georgetown and Oregon will entertain the men and women in uniform at Camp Humphreys.
Three years ago, the Carrier Classic was devised as a way to do accomplish two things at the same time:
1) Entertain, and pay homage to, the United States military, and 2) engineer a massive spectacle that could erase college basketball's traditionally lukewarm start and get casual fans interested right away.
It worked on both counts. President Obama made an appearance for what turned out to be, if not a very good game of basketball, an absolutely unique, absolutely breathtaking spectacle. It was hardly a surprise when copycats cropped up in 2012, but the realities of water vapor and ocean atmospherics revealed the whole boat idea to be unsustainable, at least at any sort of scale.
The Armed Forces Classic solves all that, and even does the aircraft carrier game one better -- it takes the college game's show on the road.
Oregon coach Dana Altman made this point, one I hadn't really considered, to Andy Tuesday afternoon:
The Pac-12 has pushed for an initiative to expand its reach into Asia, with UCLA going on a tour to China last year and Arizona State this summer. There also is a delegation from a Pac-12 coaching clinic with Oregon State coach Craig Robinson headed there, as well.
"The conference is trying to promote the Pac-12 brand in Asia," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "This will be a unique opportunity for our players and staff."
The last time a regular-season college game was held in Asia was 1982, in the sport's golden era, when a Ralph Sampson-led Virginia and an Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston were just about the biggest non-Magic Johnson/Larry Bird attractions in the sport; big enough to justify a one-off game at the Aoyama University gym in Tokyo. Since then, the NBA has completely overtaken the globalization of the sport, first with Michael Jordan -- I still think Jordan should be one of the "Great Merchant" character spawns in Civilization V -- and then, as China's economy has exploded, with Allen Iverson, Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The college side has had almost zero stake in the game's international explosion and, save exceptions, hasn't reaped many of the benefits, either.
There is no reason this has to be the case, particularly for a conference like the Pac-12, which aligns geographically with the types of professional sports franchises -- the Los Angeles Lakers, the Seattle Mariners, the San Francisco Giants -- that have received an exponential boost of popularity from Asian audiences, or have large and diverse Asian populations in their metropolitan areas. (But geography doesn't even have to be a defining factor; the Boston Red Sox are awfully popular in Japan, too.) The point is, in 2013, leagues need not be restricted to their own geographical footprint for audience share. You never know what will catch with worldwide audiences, audiences which are now easier to reach than ever. As the NBA, NFL and English soccer become global brands (and maybe even global leagues, if respective stakeholders get their wish), why should college leagues stay on the sideline? Why not make your product accessible to as many people as possible? Why not see what sticks?
It is in this way that the Armed Forces Classic holds an advantage over aircraft carrier games and other forms of season tip-off spectacle. Not only does it provide said spectacle -- the atmosphere in the hangar for Michigan State and UConn was incredible and vaguely old school, even on TV -- through real, actual basketball played in a gym. Not only does it give the sport a chance to entertain and honor military members, it also offers a sidelong route into countries that might otherwise completely shrug at the idea of hosting a regular-season collegiate game -- a global brand-building opportunity that wouldn't otherwise exist.