Some Ideas To Improve Sun Belt Hoops
I’m not going to claim to have all the answers so I’m going to put forward multiple ideas that if embraced can help the conference in hoops.
First let’s change how we deal with NCAA units. To quote Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, “Greed is good”. The NCAA assures the Sun Belt that one unit will be earned each year (worth roughly $280,000) and pays for all the units earned each of the past six seasons. That is roughly $1.6 million a year. Change how it is distributed.
If a team makes the tournament and is one and done that school receives $0 off the top. The NCAA pays per diem and travel expenses, you won’t lose money going to the NCAA Tournament this way and it provides a stable revenue stream for league operations.
If you make the NCAA Tournament win your first game and lose in the round of 32, Sun Belt takes the first unit and 10% of the second unit. Assuming a unit is worth $280,000 the team making the second round would pull in $252,000 a year for six years for advancing to the second round. The conference would take $308,000 over six years from the appearance (10% plus the extra unit. That infusion of cash would allow a team making the tournament and advancing to afford to buy three non-returned Division I games a year for six years and have money left over. They could fund a neutral site tournament or doubleheader. They can up their recruiting budget or spruce up their weight room or dressing room or even their arena a bit. Make the Sweet 16 and that’s more than a half million per year. Make the Final Four and the school is guaranteed a million dollars a year for six years. If two teams or more teams are invited, the Sun Belt would take one unit plus 10% of the other units and the two or more teams would equally split the first round units. Say School 1 makes it and loses in the first round and School 2 makes it and loses in the second round. School 1 would take half a first round unit after the 10% is deducted or $126,000 for each of the next six years. School 2 would take $418,000 a year for six years (half the first round minus 10% and 90% of the second unit).
Greed is good. Play to it and give teams added benefit for success that they can see in the budget.
Second. Re-think the approach to the conference tournament. There are two radically different approaches. Which is best is in the eye of the beholder but I think either beats the current format.
Approach One. Eliminate the conference tournament. If you are going to slog through 20 games, then crown a champion at the end of the year and call it a season. Choosing to go “old school” will generate press attention for being unusual and it makes a 20 game season meaningful. No more hand wringing about small crowds at the tournament and no more message board threads declaring that if the league would just move to city X that the place would be full.
The downside is the champion is possibly not your “hot” team or the champion racked up an impressive lead but lost a star player and barely held on to the title. You lose a guaranteed ESPN appearance for the tournament but it is a guaranteed appearance in a mostly empty arena up against other bigger name conferences.
Approach Two. In 1962 the Atlantic Coast Conference began its march to becoming one of the pre-eminent conferences in college basketball, in part thanks to a rules change. The league decreed it would crown only one team as its champion, the winner of the conference tournament. There is no trophy to place in a case, no banner to hang for finishing with the best regular season record in the ACC and there have not been such awards since the 1961 season.
The top teams battle for tournament seeding but there is no regular season title to be won. No cutting the nets for only earning the top seed. Coaches and players cannot complete the regular season and think they have accomplished the goal.
The upside for doing this is it takes pressure off the need to play everyone twice. NCAA rules require you to play everyone at least once or play 14 games in league play. Drop the league schedule to 14. With the current 11 team set-up that means everyone once and four teams twice. If we go to 12, it would be play everyone once and three teams twice. No division needed and if you want to preserve some rivalries you just build it into the schedule. Even 16 would work but I’m going to stick with 14.
The regular season is merely there to determine your seed for the tournament, that’s much like it is now except a team that wins the regular season and loses in the tournament is still a champion in the current format. In the NBA and NFL no one cares who has the best regular season record in the NBA Eastern Conference or in the AFC except as it relates to seeding. If we are playing for the championship and auto bid in the tournament, let’s not end the year with two trophies, let the tournament determine it.
That frees up six games to play in non-conference. That also creates a risk that teams will schedule horribly and hurt the league.
So we add a carrot and stick approach.
Regardless of the post-season approach taken, the league has to bolster basketball scheduling.
Sun Belt revenue this year should be roughly $14 million with distribution probably a tad south of a million per school. For every non-division I opponent you play, your distribution is reduced by 2%. Then a 5% reduction if you do not meet one of the following: 1. Have a final RPI of 175 or better (this is a low bar only 10 schools with a winning record vs Division I were below 175 this year). 2. Have a final RPI Strength of Schedule rated 180 or better. 3 Have a non-conference slate with an average RPI rating of 170. 4. Have a non-conference slate with an average RPI of 150 in the three years before the season.
The money deducted will be divided equally among the schools with no deductions, if no school has any deductions then the money will carryover until a season when no school has deductions.
If you choose to stay with a conference tournament, then stick with neutral site.
If you go with a neutral site then bring back the Hot Springs format of both tournaments in the same city with all teams, but understand who you are marketing to. I’ve been to Sun Belt tournaments and I’ve been in Memphis during the CUSA Tournament. The dominant consumer group you are marketing to is either retired or still employed but empty-nesters. We are dealing with fan bases a fraction the size of the SEC members and smaller than most teams of CUSA at its prime. So that puts us at a disadvantage, but when we forget the core consumer group is age 50+ and do not pick a site with that in mind attendance will suffer.
You want cities that are friendly to an older consumer. The number of dance clubs and party bars is less important than the number of accessible restaurants, shopping and activities like golf.
Target cities will be ones that can offer ideally two courts in one building like Hot Springs. If you cannot replicate that look for a city that can offer a smallish (5k to 12k) primary arena and very close by can offer a venue suitable for 2k seating as was done in Hot Springs (although it was in one building). The second venue needs to be accessible ideally by walking but if quality public transit or a very frequent shuttle system is available then within 2 miles or so would be acceptable. Depending on the city that second venue can be a convention center or a small college or high school arena if it is of high quality. Playing the second court in a high school gym is not an insult to the teams assigned there UNLESS it does not offer good team space, adequate theater seating, quality lighting and ventilation, and an adequate court.
A smaller market will be more affordable for fans and because crowds the size of the Sun Belt can have a solid economic impact on a smaller city more favorable terms for facility rental and hotels for teams and fans can be negotiated.
Just picking through this list can improve the quality of basketball and return basketball to status as a sport of importance in the league.
Remember as important as football is, the Big East has a bigger a TV contract than the AAC or MWC without football. Basketball still matters and there are dollars left on the table until the Sun Belt chooses to go after those dollars.
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