The tapes are stacked next to his television in Lancashire, England, filled with games of Duke, North Carolina and the University of Connecticut. For some odd reason, Ben Eaves recalled, at least one of those three teams always seemed to play every night on the North American Sports Network, a cable outlet which airs sports that do not fit the traditional label in England.
Eaves, a UConn freshman forward, would watch the tapes over again, emulating style and play, infatuated with American men’s college basketball. While NASN airs ESPN content overseas that typically receives high ratings in the United States, Eaves’ growing curiosity peaked. His ambition became UConn. A few years later, he arrived in Storrs.
Now take that concept (a steady diet of one or a group of teams) and multiply it by 16 programs, spread it across the United States via the most established cable sports network, and plant the idea of playing somewhere in the Big East Conference in the head of a 15-year-old high school sophomore. Ask last year’s Wisconsin player of the year Jerry Smith where he first watched Louisville. Or ask Anthony Mason Jr., a sophomore forward from Memphis, when and how he was first introduced to a school in Queens like St. John’s.
"Their games were on all the time. I know those teams didn’t play every night, but it seemed as though they did. It didn’t take me long to figure out why they were on all the time, but you keep on seeing it and seeing it until finally it becomes part of your life," Eaves said. "I wanted that. If I didn’t see UConn on television, I obviously wouldn’t be here."
Most college basketball players agree nothing compares to a visit from a coach to their home or prep or high school gym during the recruiting courtship. Like business, face time remains so crucial. But even with the advent of the Internet and all its possibilities for exposure, a coach can assure a recruit’s family one thing that is not playing time or an NBA guarantee.
Now, after the Big East and ESPN agreed to a six-year deal that will air every conference basketball game, coaches will use the contract as one of the most effective recruiting tools. This is a reciprocal agreement, but not in a conference-network sense. Watch us tonight on ESPN and tell us what you think about our program. Then, sign with our school and your family and friends can watch every college game you play.
About a month after the two sides announced their agreement that will make the basketball conference the most widely distributed in the country next season, Dan Gavitt, a Big East associate commissioner, held a symposium in Philadelphia to discuss matters with every assistant coach from Marquette to Rutgers to West Virginia.
One of the key topics was the television deal that begins in late 2007. Gavitt explained how the contract works. In return, he was asked questions, but the answer always revolved around recruiting.
The simple response stemmed from the concept current Big East Commissioner Michael Tranghese is trying to push. The conference would like to strengthen its success and appeal from top to bottom. Every time traditional conference power Syracuse plays, the Orange are helping Seton Hall and DePaul, even if they aren’t playing those teams.
On any night during the winter months, depending on the cable package, a viewer will be able to watch the Big East in some capacity. With 16 teams scattered across four regions and two time zones, the conference has the potential to reach 30 percent of the country’s households, in addition to regions like the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. Depending on the quality of the game, an entire country sometimes will have the opportunity to watch multiple Big East games.
Also, if market saturation is figured into the strategy (see chart), the Big East does not only cover regions but overall population. There is a direct correlation between deep recruiting pockets and ESPN exposure. The overall message Gavitt was trying to convey was use this deal to your advantage.
"Really, when you ask coaches about media markets, they understand the basics, and that’s all they really need to know. Some really grasp the concept, and that’s what we want them to do," Tranghese said. "Coaches don’t care about ratings. They care about recruiting."
When the Big East and ESPN began developing their partnership in the early 1980s, the same idea applied, except it was on a much smaller scale with nine teams by 1982. When the conference expanded to 16 teams last season, it created confusion from alignment to scheduling logistics. The new Big East failed to make sense from an outsider’s point of view, but in terms of opportunity, from business to basketball, the conference and some coaches felt growth was necessary.
Still, when Tranghese took the podium at the Theater at Madison Square Garden during Big East media day in October, he spoke of potential and expansion and how important this television contract was to secure the conference’s longevity. The room remained silent, as if asking Tranghese for proof.
The deal is for six years starting next season. He said it will take some time. The preparation, though, began months ago.
The contract has been embraced by the smaller programs. First-year Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez took the Pirates job late in the spring recruiting period. He solidified commitments from some local talent from the Greater New York metropolitan area, but nothing away from the New Jersey campus.
In terms of diversified rosters (see chart), Seton Hall has the fewest states represented (four) while Louisville has the most (11). While Gonzalez and Fred Hill, Rutgers’ first-year coach, both agree it is necessary to keep top in-state recruits, they still have the option to look elsewhere. It has always been there, Gonzalez said, but now it may be so much easier to do.
And by that, like most coaches, he said that this could potentially change college basketball by luring more of the most talented players in the country back to the Big East.
"You don’t think we can get into some areas the Big East has never been in before? Some kid out there is going to see us, and if not us, the Big East, and they’re going to get curious. I think that can change a lot of things," Gonzalez said. "I disagreeistants and I have talked about this a lot, and after I came back from the Big East coaches’ meeting, the only thing I knew was that this can help."
At the time, UConn coach Jim Calhoun’s idea was viewed as a novelty. Now, it’s almost the standard. All teams have more than one player on current rosters that grew up out of the program’s region, while 13 of the 16 schools are represented by at least seven states (see chart).
In the original Big East, St. John’s owned New York City recruiting while Villanova took care of Philadelphia and New Jersey. Georgetown cornered the Washington, D.C., market, Syracuse had its pick of anywhere in the northeast, and there was UConn, squeezed in between so many schools and cities in an otherwise rural location.
The Huskies were able to lure in-state recruits like Chris Smith and Scott Burrell, but some other options were limited. Calhoun searched for another direction.
"It was saturated after saturated area every year," Calhoun said. "So we thought, let’s go to Arizona and go get Brian Fair. Let’s go to Utah. Let’s just go. Why not?"
Fair, the then-Arizona player of the year, decided to go to UConn and enjoyed a quality college career. When he arrived for the 1991-92 season, the Huskies played six games on ESPN that year, around the average at that time since the school first appeared on the network in 1986-87. More out-of-region recruits started coming in, including Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld from overseas (Israel), and by 1995-96, the Huskies played 10 times on ESPN while CBS aired six games.
By the time UConn won its first national championship in 1999, the Huskies’ television exposure reached an all-time high. The next season, they played 14 ESPN games and seven times on CBS or ABC. Three-fifths of the program’s games reached a national audience.
When the Big East and ESPN formed their partnership, UConn was in the second tier on the network’s priority list behind the other major schools in the conference. That has now changed.
"Even when we received minimum exposure, it only enhanced our program. Everything coinciding, the exposure, us reaching a certain level, was not by design, but it helped so much," Calhoun said. "No doubt in my mind that if it wasn’t for the rest of the country seeing us so much, we wouldn’t be able to recruit like we recruit."
Even though the ESPN programming for next season will not be decided for some time, a national audience will see some of the current bigger names more often than the new Big East teams. The network still has the opportunity to cut in and air parts of other games which were originally scheduled to air regionally.
If, by chance, two teams playing their last regular-season game are vying for a spot in the conference tournament in New York City, the nationally televised game will be left to cut in to the game with more implications but with less-recognized programs.
And in the process, Tranghese believes a high school recruit out there will take notice of a euphoric scene unfolding in a once dark corner of the Big East.
It happened to former UConn forward Donny Marshall, who played the same four years as Fair. Marshall grew up in Federal Way, Wash., and first saw the Huskies on ESPN, attracting him to the school.
It may have been a shameless plug while he provided the color commentary for the UConn-Albany game in November, but he told the story to viewers of the game aired on ESPN Regional.
Chance for parity?
With last season’s expansion, the Big East placed eight teams in the NCAA tournament, a high for the field of 65. Its conference tournament allowed Syracuse to slip in during a mediocre season, but the automatic bid pushed the Orange through, plus their unexpected rise improved ratings.
This is what Tranghese was referring to when 16 teams began conference play. Even though not all teams will make the trip to Madison Square Garden, the conference tournament’s longtime home, there is an opportunity for all to qualify. This aspect of the postseason still does not sit well with some conference traditionalists, but for now, it remains.
Still, the top of the Big East standings continues to have a familiar look. It has been almost 14 years since a school like Seton Hall won the Big East regular-season title. But even with the fifth largest men’s basketball budget in the conference (see chart), Gonzalez sees opportunities.
This is why.
The general consensus among Big East coaches at media day was that only two teams are strong enough on paper to win the regular-season title. From three to 10, the rest of the conference was a toss up in terms of predicted order of finish.
Georgetown’s John Thompson III said it has been some time since the conference was this balanced with talent. Jim Boeheim of Syracuse said not much separates those teams, perhaps luck.
And perhaps, he added, one more key player that no one else has on their roster. That may change in the next few years. This is Tranghese’s hope.
"It comes down to one more good player every year. If you had this kid or if you had that kid. I haven’t really looked at the contract that much, but I know what I see on the surface," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "The top five teams in the conference are always able to get that kid. Now the others have a chance with this contract. Is it going to change how the traditional top five programs fare in the conference? Maybe. But not as much as five through 16."
Dixon is like most coaches who Tranghese said just look at the television contract for what they need to know.
And that may be enough to convince one more recruit to sign with their school.
Editor’s note: This is the final of a two-part series detailing the partnership between ESPN and Big East men’s basketball
Brett Orzechowski can be reached at email@example.com