Campus losing ground in scheduling
On Dec. 10, college basketball won.
Indiana, a squad on the rise, toppled No. 1 Kentucky, creating the lasting image from the nonconference portion of the 2012-13 campaign.
The drama of March Madness had arrived before Christmas.
Christian Watford's buzzer-beater for the ages spurred a memorable court-storming by IU's fans. Indiana's players stood on tables. Kentucky's lay on the floor. Hoosiers coach Tom Crean forced Dick Vitale to wear a Hoosiers hat. A Playboy model/UK fan was nearly trampled in the melee. There were songs and nonstop cheers. Assembly Hall had regained its swagger.
Check the shaky YouTube clips produced by fans who attended the event and tell me you can't feel that vibe and passion of a fan base that had waited years to feel right about its program again.
Yet, the significance of the atmosphere from that game was lost this offseason as Crean and John Calipari bantered about the location of upcoming Indiana-Kentucky matchups.
Calipari wanted to play at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Crean wanted to keep the games on campus. Crean says Calipari decided against the home-and-home arrangement they'd enjoyed in recent seasons. Calipari says a neutral-site option was on the table throughout the discussion.
The result: Indiana will not play Kentucky next season or for the foreseeable future.
Fans, however, were excluded from the negotiation process.
It seems we've reached an era where teams would rather compete in holiday tournaments in the Bahamas or neutral-site matchups in football stadiums than absorb the risk that comes with the traditional home-and-home series of old. Any games that draw major TV exposure -- for the sake of recruiting and revenue -- are welcomed. And in the 21st century, that might demand aircraft carriers, a 24-hour marathon or a matchup that's played on a neutral site far from campus.
Coaches express their desires to satisfy their fans. But that's rarely mentioned when teams compete in venues that some, especially students, can't reach because of distance and/or financial considerations. And even if they can get there, it's not like home.
It doesn't help that schools have to pay millions to compile nonconference home games. And the price is rising. The economic challenges associated with scheduling also has pushed teams toward tournaments and neutral-site games that don't cost as much.
Calipari recently announced plans for Kentucky to face Baylor at Cowboys Stadium during the 2013-14 season, a season after the two square off in Lexington. The plan follows a trend toward college football's bigger-is-better model.
"If you sell out or get a big crowd, everybody makes money," Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
I understand the perspective of the coaches who want to participate in these grand events. These mega, neutral-site matchups create a buzz. People cared about North Carolina's season-opening matchup against Michigan State because the two teams played on an aircraft carrier. They'll care about Baylor-Kentucky simply because it will play out in Jerry's World.
And there is something to said for the argument that playing at, say, Lucas Oil Stadium instead of, say, Assembly Hall, does allow for more fans on both sides to experience these games. In terms of sheer numbers, there's no arguing that point. For more than 30 years, Illinois and Missouri have competed every season in St. Louis. And yes, from 1991 to 2005, IU and UK did compete rotate between Louisville and Indianapolis.
Attendance was not an issue at those rivalry games. But those grand matchups also mask challenges associated with nonconference scheduling. November and December are littered with games that boast tropical atmospheres but little fanfare.
I covered the 2010 edition of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Although North Carolina, Minnesota, Vanderbilt and West Virginia all participated, the arena was eerily quiet despite the competitive matchups.
UNC sent a few hundred fans. The other schools offered only a handful. Locals barely noticed.
Similar matchups on college campuses would have guaranteed a better crowd and aura. But they would have lacked the Caribbean breeze and mango smoothies that travelers enjoyed.
The move toward this new philosophy on nonconference scheduling is complicated.
Missouri coach Frank Haith said he's talked to Arizona's Sean Miller about a future matchup between the two schools. Arizona and Missouri could establish an enticing Pac 12-SEC rivalry. But they probably will play those games on neutral sites, Haith said.
Haith understands the concerns of fans who want more good home games during the nonconference season. It's not, however, that simple to produce them, he said.
"You're not going to get those teams to come to Missouri or wherever to play," he said. "You can't just play all buy games at your place, and you're not going to get a lot of those teams to do a home-and-home at your place. That's what the game has gotten to."
There's also the RPI factor, a significant one for college coaches thinking about March Madness in early November.
Dan Monson remembers the year he arrived at Long Beach State. BYU offered to face the 49ers at their place. Monson thought he'd gotten pretty lucky to face the Cougars. He changed his mind when they led by nearly 40 points at halftime.
Since that challenging debut, Monson has turned Long Beach State into a mid-major powerhouse. North Carolina will visit its campus this upcoming season. Few programs can match his team's annual nonconference slate that often features multiple Top 25 programs.
But teams field his calls now, he said, because he's no longer a major risk to their RPI. "[BYU] had just done their homework that we had no players when I got the job," Monson said. "Then it progresses to where we got better. The first people that know you're getting better are coaches. Once we got a little bit better and started being at the top of our league, then it became a situation where Duke and some of those schools called us because they wanted the top team in the small league so they could get the RPI."
It would be hypocritical, however, to suggest that coaches and administrators alone have fostered this movement.
TV is just as much of a culprit.
The coaches want games that will attract ratings. Doesn't matter if you're a Top 25 team or a mid-major on the rise; the goal is to gain exposure. Networks such as ESPN play a direct and indirect role in scheduling. And schools want to appeal to the executives who make the TV-related decisions.
Nick Dawson, ESPN's director of programming and acquisitions for men's basketball, said the network still covets the traditional home matchups. The North Carolina-Michigan State game on the aircraft carrier was the network's top-rated nonconference basketball matchup last season. But Duke at Ohio State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and Kentucky at Indiana were second and third.
"I think there's appeal both ways. We still value a ton of nonconference games played on a home court in a traditional college environment," Dawson said. "There's also some appeal to the nontraditional venue as well."
"What interests TV, interests college coaches because that's what gets your program visibility," Drew said.
That's why you play on a ship. That's why you play in the home of an NFL franchise. And that's why you lure teams away from home venues. You can put more fans in the pro sports venue. The latter attracts TV and media coverage, which also appeals to recruits.
It's a perplexing mix that has fueled a troubling deviation from the historic models that promised a "we'll play anyone, anywhere" mindset among the game's titans.
The phrase has changed. "We'll play anyone depending on the venue and TV considerations."
And as a result, we're losing critical nonconference games on college campuses, where many would argue they belong.
Perhaps college coaches and officials should poll their fans before they finalize nonconference matchups in the future. Or, better yet, they should just watch YouTube.